Points-Based Immigration: Lessons from Abroad

A newly sworn in U.S. citizen.

A newly sworn-in U.S. citizen. Under a proposed points-based system for granting visas to immigrants, the United States would weigh factors such as education and skills much more heavily than family connections. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

Differences of Opinion: The Divide Over 'Amnesty'

One source of contention in the immigration debate is the concept of amnesty — not punishing immigrants who came into the country illegally. The latest immigration overhaul proposal in Congress would offer a way for the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States to receive legal status. Read a sampling of opinion about whether the proposal actually gives amnesty to illegal immigrants.

Nearly every part of the immigration bill now under consideration in the Senate is controversial, but perhaps none more so than the proposed points-based system for awarding visas. If enacted, it would mark a dramatic shift in U.S. immigration policy, from a system based on kinship to one where education and skills matter the most. Under a points-based system, an English-speaking doctor from India would make the cut, while a Spanish-speaking construction worker from Mexico probably would not.

It's a new concept for the U.S., but other countries — Canada, Australia and Britain — have had such systems in place for decades. Their experiences offer lessons about the merits — and drawbacks — of a points-based system.

The Canadian Experience

Canada was the first nation to adopt a points-based immigration system, in 1967. At the time, the government was trying to remedy a feast-or-famine cycle of immigration. When the economy was booming, there was a flood of new immigrants, but when business slowed, immigration dried up.

The points system, in effect, transferred control over immigration from business to government. Applicants no longer needed to have a job waiting for them in Canada. They just needed enough points — 67 points, to be precise.

Here's how it works. Applicants accrue points for meeting criteria in categories such as education, work experience, occupation, language ability and age. Some categories are weighted more heavily than others. For instance, an applicant gets 25 points for an advanced degree but only four points if they're proficient in an official Canadian language.

Canada also offers bonus points for "adaptability." If an applicant's spouse, for instance, is highly educated, or if they have a relative in the country, the applicant gets a few more points. The biggest points, though, are awarded for education and work experience. In many ways, the points system is like the process that colleges use to screen applicants.

Australia has a similar system, with a few differences. Applicants receive bonus points if they are fluent in one of the country's "community languages" — those other than English. They also accrue points if they can invest about $100,000 in government-sanctioned projects in the country.

Britain adopted a points-based system under Tony Blair — one of his lesser-known reforms. It's similar to the Australian system but with one interesting twist: The U.K. will automatically grant a work visa to graduates of the top 50 business school around the world.

Social Engineering?

Supporters of the points system say it provides a steady supply of skilled immigrants, creating a pool of qualified workers that business can draw upon and who contribute, overall, to their new homeland. It's also straightforward. By going to Web sites like this, someone who wants to immigrate to Canada can, with a few clicks of the mouse, see if they qualify.

"Compared to most other selection systems, points systems appear to avoid the 'gamesmanship' between employers and bureaucrats that afflict case-by-case selection systems," says Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute.

Under the points-based system, the government, not employers or families, controls what kind of people are allowed to immigrate.

"In essence, a points-based immigration system allows the government to socially engineer its demography," says Lance Kaplan, an immigration lawyer.

If you think that sounds a tad Orwellian, you are not alone. Critics say the points system is too narrowly focused. They say it doesn't take into account unconventional applicants who may have much to contribute, and it leaves no room for serendipity.

"Who would have guessed, when he arrived from Taiwan as a child, that Jerry Yang would go on to co-found Yahoo!, or that a Kenyan student named Barack Obama, who came to study in Hawaii, would marry a Kansan woman and have a son who may become the next U.S. president?" writes Philippe Legrain in foreignpolicy.com.

But Do Points Work?

Indeed, not everyone in Canada is happy with the point system.

"Our system is broken," says Howard Greenberg, a Canadian immigration lawyer, who recently testified before a Congressional subcommittee about the points system. So many people have accrued enough points that Canada now faces a huge backlog of immigrants—some 800,000, a daunting number that undermines the supposed efficiency of a points-based system.

Harbaksh Nanda was one of those left in limbo. He and his wife had applied to emigrate from India to Canada. They had enough points, but the system was overloaded, and they ended up waiting five years before they could emigrate.

"The wait period is murder," he says. "You are neither here nor there. You don't know whether you've been accepted, so you can't make any plans." Eventually, he and his family moved to Toronto, but for a while, neither one of them could find work.

And that is another big concern about a points-based system. Immigrants with enough points need not have a job waiting for them. Thus, in Canada, there are many immigrant doctors and professors driving taxis. And those degrees and work experience that applicants earn points for? Most Canadian companies don't recognize them anyway.

Better, critics say, to let businesses sponsor applicants.

"If I'm Microsoft and I want to recruit this guy from Bangalore, what difference does it make how many points he has?" says Greenberg, the Canadian lawyer.

A successful points-based system is a flexible one, according to those who have studied them. Australia tweaks its system several times of a year, adjusting the criteria to reflect changing employer needs. By comparison, the U.S. Congress has, historically, changed visa laws only every 15 or 20 years

In any event, no one sees a points-based system as a magic solution to the immigration debate.

"A point system is one of the things we should put in our policy tool-kit, but it is not the only one," says the Migration Policy Institute's Papademetriou.

In fact, in Canada the points system accounts for only one-quarter of all immigrants. The rest enter the country through other legal channels: family immigrants, refugees, temporary workers.

Meanwhile, Canada and Australia are also borrowing ideas from the U.S. — for instance, by counting an applicant's job offers more heavily in their points calculations. Such "hybrid selection systems," as Papademetriou calls them, may be the wave of the future.

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