Trump Wants A Merit-based Immigration System. But Does He Mean It?

Trump’s Address to the joint session of Congress was by most accounts a success. Like all impactful speeches, Trump held court by delivering an impassioned presentation with substance. He outlined a sweeping agenda for his audience and paid homage to the widow of a fallen Navy SEAL. And he delivered it all in a “presidential manner” which, given his standard off-script communication style, came as a pleasant surprise even to his harshest critics. The teleprompter can do wonders.

But for those keeping close watch on Trump’s evolving positions on immigration and border protection, his speech was transformative. From day one, when Trump announced his candidacy on June 16 ,2015, his anti-immigration rhetoric has been unrelenting. The drum-beat has been constant about the need to secure the borders, warnings on the dangers to personal safety caused by illegals and how immigration drives down wages.

Throughout the campaign and into the first 30 days of Trump’s presidency, we have been counseled that immigration is a personal and economic threat to Americans. Then suddenly it all changed.

In his Address, while Trump reaffirmed his commitment to building a wall along the US/Mexican border, he also said

Nations around the world, like Canada, Australia and many others, have a merit-based immigration system… I believe that real and positive immigration reform is possible, as long as we focus on the following goals — to improve jobs and wages for Americans, to strengthen our nation’s security, and to restore respect for our laws. “If we are guided by the well-being of American citizens then I believe Republicans and Democrats can work together to achieve an outcome that has eluded our country for decades.

Say what? Can it be that Trump believes Canada’s and Australia’s immigration systems are worthy models to emulate? Why Trump’s remarks about merit-based immigration were so remarkable is that such systems generally afford an easier and more streamlined path to permanent residency for foreign nationals. This flies in the face of everything we thought we knew about Trump’s stance on immigration.

Like the US, Canada and Australia offer various immigration programs such as family-based and investor categories. But where the US departs from the others, is that there’s no comprehensive category for permanent residency based on merit, also widely known as a “point system”. Under a merit system, applicants can earn selection points for their achievements and credentials like education, work experience and language skills. Merit is also sometimes awarded for age which understandably is controversial.

How many points needed to qualify and what factors earn one points are set by the government.

An estimated 60,000 applicants are approved under the Canada’s Express Entry program, the latest iteration of that country’s merit-based system. And given Canada’s population of just over 35 million, that’s a high number.

To be sure, the US offers a merit-like system when it comes to its non-immigrant visa programs (eg. H-1B visas). And for select permanent resident categories where the bar is set so high, very few qualify. But there is nothing here resembling a comprehensive immigration program that awards selection points like Canada’s. So, unless you are a superstar in your respective field, you won’t likely get in.

Trump’s statement was so shocking to observers because the thinking behind merit-based immigration is that immigration can be a net benefit to the economy and to citizens—provided the “right type” of immigrants are admitted. This marks a clear departure from Trump’s pre-speech protectionist stance. Proponents of merit-based immigration believe that if the government can calibrate immigration flow to serve an economic need, then the “well-being” of all citizens will be secured.

So if Trump believes that under certain conditions, immigration can be helpful and is not always harmful to Americans and American jobs, there may be an opening for more qualified foreign nationals to gain permanent residency. It also will enable American companies to tap into the larger global talent pool. And contrary to what the protectionists preach (some of whom are among Trump’s advisory team), when companies are free to recruit globally, that opens doors to more, not less job opportunities for local workers. Simply put, labor talent, whatever its origin, adds capital to company coffers which can be and is often reinvested into local training and recruitment. After all, companies will always hire local whenever they can rather than undergoing the added expenses, delays and risks associated with foreign recruitment.

It should be noted that like other government programs, merit-based immigration is inherently flawed. If the goal is to attract the best and brightest immigrants for economic gain, only companies themselves are truly qualified to determine ideal candidate profiles—not the government. And even then, companies don’t always get it right. HR is more an art than a science. But to presume that the government, as a central planner, has some special insight into what “type” of immigrant is best for the economy at large, is to ignore the truth that the economy is, as Forbes Economics Editor John Tamny puts it “just a collection of individuals”. And it’s only on a company-level that such judgments can and should be made.

But still, let’s hope Trump means what he says. While merit based immigration is far from ideal, it’s a step in the right direction, as it acknowledges that immigrants, especially skilled ones, can be assets.

Michael Niren is an immigration lawyer and CEO of