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After Brexit and Trump, Is There a Point to the Points System?

| May 08, 2017
Marc Desormeaux
National Forecast


Both British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump have discussed the merits of points-based immigration systems in recent months, with Trump citing Canada’s model as an exemplar. The desire for more control over immigration was a key component in the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union and helped propel Trump into the White House. But, would a points system be the right approach to immigrant selection in either country? What lessons can British and American policy-makers glean from Canada’s immigration experience?

Points-based immigration systems screen newcomers and attempt to improve their odds of success once they migrate. Canada’s system centres largely on economic considerations, awarding points to potential immigrants based on their work experience, education levels, and proficiency in both official languages.

Since Canada created the world’s first points-based system in October 1967, Australia adopted a similar system in 1979 and New Zealand followed suit in 1991. In the ensuing years, other countries have experimented with merit-based systems. But it is generally accepted that Canada, Australia, and New Zealand are in a league of their own when it comes to attracting skilled immigrants. And, Canada is widely seen as a leader in immigrant integration.

The U.K. currently uses a points system for immigrants from outside the EU. (There is freedom of movement for workers within the union.) But with Brexit and a general election looming, the issue of what kind of immigration system would best suit Britain is very much on the minds of policy-makers across the pond.

A Canadian-style points system could provide more desired outcomes in the United Kingdom. Much of the anxiety leading up to the Brexit vote stemmed from fears that foreign-born migrants were displacing British citizens in the labour market. A common points system, applied to newcomers from both within and outside of the EU, would give the U.K. more control over its immigration policy. This would allow for the selection of more highly educated immigrants who are better able to integrate into the British labour market, placating fears about immigration and lessening societal strains. This sense of control would also be important for political communication. One of the reasons that Canada’s system works is that it combines a selective approach with multiculturalism. This allows us to create a narrative that we admit the best and brightest who help make our economy and society vibrant. The U.K. would have to create such a narrative to win public support for the points system.

The U.S. used a version of a merit-based system in the 1950s, and several industries currently rely on work visas for economic immigration. But today’s system has an emphasis on family-related considerations, such as reuniting spouses and relatives with their kin in the United States.

Circumstances in the U.S. do not lend themselves as well to a points system. For one, such a system would not curb illegal immigration or address national security concerns. Because of its proximity to several countries with less economic stability, the U.S. is a common destination for migrants who pursue opportunity there in contravention of U.S. law. As such, fears have surfaced about the displacement of American workers, downward pressures on wages, and crime. Campaign rhetoric leading up to the 2016 presidential election reflected this fact. But, points systems aim to improve the efficiency of the legal immigration system; they would do little to address these challenges. Moreover, a points system would not reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack, which Trump linked to immigration during the election cycle as well. A points system is also less likely to benefit the U.S. because of its demographics. The U.S. has a higher birth rate and younger population than Canada, and thus has less of a need, in aggregate, to boost its labour force through immigration. But, the U.S. has other issues that might be helped by a more targeted immigrant selection process. Industries such as construction and agriculture that rely on lower-skilled workers are facing labour shortages. Similarly, there are labour shortages at the high-end of the skills spectrum—Silicon Valley being a case in point.  A points system might help firms to more effectively select and integrate skilled immigrants into their workforces. These are the challenges that should be considered when developing the U.S. immigration system of the future.

Canada’s points-based immigration system has been successful due to three main factors. First, our circumstances are favourable; our geographic isolation limits illegal migration. Second, we have customized immigration policies; our highly selective system is designed to meet our economic and cultural needs (e.g., Quebec’s system is designed to strengthen Canada’s francophone heritage). And by combining a rigorous process with effective messaging, we have built public trust in our immigration system. However, on its own, our system is not the cure for what ails the U.K. or the United States. To design more effective immigration systems, policy-makers in those countries must focus on their unique circumstances, rather than view Canada as an exemplar. By considering what kind of immigrants they already admit, their demographic trends, and their labour market needs, they too can put in place the right immigration policies that benefit their citizens.

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