What Is Merit-Based Immigration?

Updated on April 10, 2024

At a Glance

  • Merit-based immigration grants entry based on individual skillsets.
  • Countries like the UK, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia already use this system.
  • The proposed US system includes tier 1 and tier 2 categories, awarding points for education, employment, entrepreneurship, and age.
  • The future of the US merit-based system is uncertain, with the current administration proposing alternative immigration reforms.

Donald Trump pushed the introduction of merit-based immigration in the U.S. If Trump had been reelected, who knows, this long-pending significant change to merit-based immigration might have seen the light of the day.

Things are different now, but it is still essential to understand merit-based immigration.

What Is Merit-Based Immigration?

Under merit-based immigration, foreign nationals would be allowed to enter the United States based on their individual skillsets. Also known as the point-based immigration system, this move would ensure that only the best and brightest people worldwide are granted H1B visas.

“You will get more points for being a younger worker, meaning you will contribute more to our social safety net. You will get more points for having a valuable skill, an offer of employment, an advanced education, or a plan to create jobs,” Trump said.

Do Other Countries Use Merit-Based Systems?

Yes, countries like the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia already use merit- or point-based immigration systems.

Canada and Australia were the first ones to adopt the point-based immigration system. Canada moved to merit-based immigration to avoid discrimination based on race, color, and caste; instead, Canada began to favor education, fluency in English or French, work experience, and youth more than just job-based skills.

Australia followed suit later. However, Australia’s point-based immigration is considered more comprehensive; countries moving toward this type of system often use Australia as a model. The most important feature of Australia’s point-based system is the application process. Herein, if an individual has acquired enough points, they will be invited to express interest in a visa and thereafter will be considered based on market requirements.

How Merit-Based Points Work

The proposed merit-based Senate bill is divided into tier 1 and tier 2. Tier 1 lays down the point-based system for highly skilled workers, whereas tier 2 is for medium- to low-skilled workforce willing to enter the U.S.

The number of H1B visas allocated to each tier would stand at 50% of available visas. The remaining visas will be carried forward for next year’s applications.

The proposed system would operate similarly to those in Canada and Australia, i.e., using an ‘expression of interest’ application system. Immigrants’ applications will be weighted based on “longer-term human capital factors such as educational attainment, age, experience, teamwork, and linguistic abilities.”

Tier 1

The maximum possible points gained under this category is 100.

Education

An alien with a Ph.D. would be granted maximum educational points, i.e., 15 points. A master’s degree is worth 10 points, and a Bachelor’s degree earns five points.

Employment

The maximum amount of points to be gained from employment are 20. These points are gained based on the job zone your occupation falls in. If you have already been employed in the U.S. under zone 5, you will be granted three points per year with an upper cap of 20 points.

Similarly, if you have a zone 4 occupation, you will be given two points each year with a maximum of 20 points.

Entrepreneurship

An alien entrepreneur with a minimum of two employees gains 10 points for a zone 5 occupation and eight points for a zone 4 occupation.

High-Demand Occupation

If you are an alien engaged in a high-demand occupation, you will gain 10 points.

If you receive more than 80 points on a foreign language test, 10 points will be granted.

An alien 18 to 25 years of age is granted eight points, six points are granted to people aged between 25 to 32 years, and four points to aliens aged between 32 to 37 years.

Tier 2

Similarly, for tier 2 the maximum number of points one can gain is 100.

Tier 2 includes zone 1 to 3 occupations, zone 1 being the least-skilled workers such as waiters, dishwashers, cashiers, meatpackers, etc.

Employment

An alien already lawfully employed in the U.S. will accrue two points every year with a maximum of 10 points.

Thereafter, according to their job zone, they will be granted different points. A caregiver is provided with 10 points.

You may also receive points for exceptional employment. If you are determined to have “proficiency” in English by passing a standardized English test, you will get 10 points.

Age-related points remain the same as in tier 1. Also, the points related to the country of origin remain the same. Familial relationships in the U.S. can add up to 10 points.

What Is the Future of the Merit-Based Immigration System in the U.S.?

While Donald Trump was president of the United States, the future of the merit-based immigration system seemed bright and on the forefront.

However, things have changed under President Biden. Biden’s government proposes an eight-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. With this, working in the U.S. would be as easy as passing background checks and paying taxes. Immigrants would be allowed to work and live in the U.S. for five years. After this period, they could apply for a green card, gain permanent status in the U.S., and gain citizenship after another three years.

This would also erase or minimize family-based immigration regulations, i.e., making it convenient for immigrants’ spouses and children to join their families in the U.S. It would also make worker visas, like H1B visas, more flexible, making it easier for foreign workers to find jobs in the U.S.

Further, the proposed bill also provides relief on border enforcement. The government will look to invest in distressed economies to prevent people from fleeing. The process at ports of entry would be eased to provide legal entry to migrants.

However, the bill is yet to be passed and seems on a rougher path as it will be difficult to win support.

It is argued that the merit-based immigrant system needs constant pruning and tweaking. It requires a lot of hard work to keep it running successfully. This has been witnessed from the frequent tweaking undertaken by Canada and Australia in their point-based immigrant systems. With the slow pace of immigrant policies in the U.S, it will be a challenge for the U.S. to keep the point-based immigrant system on track.

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Conclusion

Some immigrants would benefit from the merit-based immigration system, and some would not. Highly skilled foreign nationals would like the U.S. to move toward this system, while foreign nationals seeking to enter the U.S. for unskilled jobs would be unaffected by the move.

The future of merit-based immigration is uncertain. Will the merit-based immigration system take the back seat permanently like various H1B rules? Only time will tell.

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Frank Gogol

I’m a firm believer that information is the key to financial freedom. On the Stilt Blog, I write about the complex topics — like finance, immigration, and technology — to help immigrants make the most of their lives in the U.S. Our content and brand have been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and more.

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