Merit Points May Select Legal Immigrants Lawmakers want to allow people into the country based on merit, and not just because they have family living in the United States. Republicans believe that we need to have more people who can help in the global economy and that a point system is the way to go.

Merit Points May Select Legal Immigrants

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's one more item that the U.S. Senate is debating as it considers immigration laws. We caught a sampling of the debate yesterday over illegal immigrants, and today we'll talk about legal immigrants.

Right now immigrants with high priority to get into the U.S. tend to be family members of people already in the country. If the new plan passed, would-be immigrants would get more of a boost for education or job skills or good English.

That change caught the attention of immigration lawyer Stephen Yale-Loehr, who teaches at Cornell University. He's on the line.

How big a change would this be?

Professor STEPHEN YALE-LOEHR (Cornell University): This would be the biggest change in immigration policy in over 40 years. The 1965 act was the last major change that revamped how we select immigrants. And this would go farther than the 1965 act by saying it we're going away from family reunification towards selecting people based on their job skills and their ability to help our economy.

INSKEEP: Okay. Well, let's say that you're in Guatemala or China or Kenya, any number of other places, and you're trying to get in the United States. I understand that if this bill passed, there'd be some kind of point system?

Mr. YALE-LOEHR: Yes. The bill envisions a hundred points, and the people who have the highest points then would be selected to come into the United States. You could get up to 47 points based on employment. You get 28 points based on education. Up to 15 points based on your knowledge of English or civics. And 10 points based on your family characteristic.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about one of these things. You said up to 47 points for your employment. How do you decide who gets the most?

Mr. YALE-LOEHR: The point system theoretically gives the U.S. economy flexibility and can change as our needs change. For example, one of the criteria is, are you going to be working in a high demand occupation? And they'll be looking at the Labor Department to determine what are those high demand occupations. So this could be high skill jobs or they could be low skill jobs like nurses' aides. That's a theoretical advantage of a point system. But we don't know whether this will actually work out that way.

INSKEEP: Are you saying it's possible that you might end up getting a lot of points for being a migrant worker if that's what we need a lot of at the moment?

Mr. YALE-LOEHR: That's theoretically possible. Also you have to realize that even the new undocumented Z workers who'll be coming in and eventually getting green cards will have their own supplemental points that would help them out. So if you're here from Guatemala already working as an undocumented worker, you're going to get extra points by having worked in agriculture for three years, for example, or you own your own house in the United States. So those people who are already here working will have a leg up in the new point system.

INSKEEP: Now, when you look at all these requirements, you mentioned the immigration changes in the 1960s. That change in the 1960s, as you know, caused immigrants to come in greater numbers from different countries. It used to be there were more immigrants from Europe. More recently there are more immigrants from Asia, say. Do you see in these requirements a possibility that there would again be a reshuffling of where the immigrants are coming from?

Mr. YALE-LOEHR: I see a theoretical reshuffling away from Latin America to other continents, particularly Africa and Asia and Europe. And that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Again, the point system can help us theoretically because we can adjust over time if we see that certain things are not working out well.

This particular point system worries me because, as envisioned in the bill, it would not be the bureaucrats who would make those decisions and be able to change them on a dime. This bill envisions that only Congress would make changes to the point system criteria. And it also says that apparently the point criteria cannot be changed for the first 14 years after the bill is enacted, and that really sets in stone these criteria, which are untried and untested.

INSKEEP: Are employers excited about all these plans?

Mr. YALE-LOEHR: No, they are not. They worry that right now they can select the individual that they want as long as they go through a labor market test and can show that there are no U.S. workers willing, able and available to do that job. They worry that people will be coming in who have high educational credentials but may not be actually ready for the particular job that an employer needs.

INSKEEP: What are immigrants rights group saying about this plan?

Mr. YALE-LOEHR: They also think that the point system is a radical shift away, that the family reunification system has worked in the past and there's no need to go to a brand new point system if the old system was working adequately.

INSKEEP: Somebody must like it.

Mr. YALE-LOEHR: Yes. I think Republicans in particular and the White House believe that we need to have more people who can help us in this global economy, and they think that a point system is the way to go. Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and New Zealand all have point systems and it's worked well for those countries. But it's very different to try this at the grand scale that we have in the United States, with the world's biggest economy, and to do so all at once rather than to phase it in over time or maybe try it as a pilot experiment.

INSKEEP: Immigration lawyer Stephen Yale-Loehr at Cornell University. Thanks very much.

Mr. YALE-LOEHR: Thank you.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.