Points-based Immigration: A Potential Option for The U.S.?

June 7, 2021 Lucy Halse

Could a points-based immigration system be a viable option for the U.S.? Take a closer look at how it's different than a quota system

A points-based immigration system, also referred to as a merit-based immigration system, is used to determine a noncitizen’s ability to immigrate to a country. A points-based system considers several different factors when evaluating an individual’s admissibility, including wealth, education level, language fluency, employment or job offer and connection to the country, such as family ties. Some countries also have disqualifying criteria for admissions, including a criminal record.

An in-depth overview of points-based immigration system
around the world

Where are points-based immigration systems used?

Points-based immigration systems are used in several countries, including:

  • Canada
  • Australia
  • U.K.

Canada adopted a points-based immigration system in the 1960s, which is still in place today. The most recent change to Canada’s immigration system occurred in 2015 with the introduction of the Express Entry program. Express Entry is a points- and merit-based system that only processes applications for the highest-scoring applicants, providing fast-track entry into Canada for those who qualify. Express Entry also reduces application processing times to six months or less and eliminates backlogs. Points are awarded for skills, experience and a valid job offer in Canada, and candidates with the highest scores are invited to apply for permanent residency.

Australia introduced a points-based immigration system in the late 1980s, basing it off of Canada’s. Australia’s program is called the SkillSelect system, and applicants must receive at least 60 points to be eligible. Eligibility criteria includes age, employment, educational qualifications, language skills and sponsorship. A skills assessment is also required for individuals seeking certain types of visas.  

In 2010, the U.K. adopted a points-based immigration system to regulate immigration for individuals from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). Unlike the systems in Canada and Australia that consider personal characteristics such as qualifications and age, the points-based system in the U.K. is largely driven by employers. Through the U.K. system, applicants are selected mainly at the discretion of an employer rather than the government.  

Differing opinions on points-based immigration

Merit-based immigration systems are controversial. Advocates argue that they reduce application processing delaysmeaning applicants can enter a country and start work sooner. In the U.S., which is facing economic setbacks from the COVID-19 pandemic and an aging workforce, advocates say transitioning to a points-based system will provide necessary economic benefits. They add that a points-based system will work best if it accepts applicants across the entire skills spectrum rather than reserving work opportunities only for the most elite applicants.

Opponents argue that merit-based immigration systems are grounded more in politics than neutrality. Instead of welcoming all applicants based on a quota system, they select for the most “desirable” foreign nationals, which inevitably puts certain individuals and groups at a disadvantage, including middle-age and older adults, individuals from less-developed countries, and applicants with fewer personal credentials (i.e., employment history and formal education).

Additionally, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) adds that traditional merit-based systems are designed to reward individuals who follow well-traveled paths of employment rather than entrepreneurs who introduce bolder and more industry-disrupting ideas. A single “superstar” entrepreneur may generate more revenue and produce more value than groups of more traditional employees.  

Introducing points-based immigration in the U.S.

Although it currently uses a quota system, points-based immigration has been a consideration for the U.S. The Trump administration proposed shifting away from a quota system to a points-based system, but nothing was ever formally implemented. That transition, as a recent Envoy study found, would be supported by many employers in the U.S. Of the employers surveyed, (60%) favor moving to a merit-based immigration system rather than keeping the quota system. Employers cite increased transparency through a defined selection criteria as the main advantage of switching to a points-based immigration system. They also view a points-based system as providing greater flexibility than a quota-based system in meeting changing demands within the U.S. About 42% of employers believe that a points-based immigration system will eliminate some randomness and biases in the applicant selection process, which will provide more fairness to applicants.

As part of its comprehensive immigration reform plan, the Biden administration could potentially introduce a points-based immigration system to attract essential workers, skilled workers and more seasonal workers, which would help the U.S. economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and create a sustainable workforce to replace the nation’s aging working population.

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Envoy is pleased to provide you this information, which was prepared in collaboration with Brendan Coggan, who is the SVP of Global Services at Envoy Global.

Content in this publication is not intended as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. For additional information on the issues discussed, consult an Envoy-affiliated attorney or another qualified professional.

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