President Donald Trump this month announced a broad plan to move the United States away from an immigration system that favors family sponsorship toward one that favors merit or skills-based immigration – one that would favor highly skilled, financially self-sufficient immigrants who learn English and pass a civics exam.
It landed with a thud on Capitol Hill, where Democrats immediately opposed it and Republicans who were briefed on it said they were “underwhelmed.”
That’s a mistake.
This is why: The simple fact is the United States needs more workers and new immigrants are one of the best ways — perhaps the only way — to fill those jobs. The fact is that unemployment has dropped to minimal levels and that is not going to be just a blip on the economic radar. As baby boomers age out of the workforce it poses great challenges for businesses and professions that need fresh workers.
In Wisconsin alone, the number of people in their prime working years is declining, and the state has 150,000 fewer people in the prime working years between the ages of 25 and 54 than it did just a dozen years ago, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report.
That trend isn’t going away anytime soon. Not here in Wisconsin or in the rest of the United States.
Significantly, the president’s proposal does not reduce the total number of immigrants allowed into the country — a marked change from the administration’s previous stance, and one that quickly drew the wrath of the far right.
Family sponsorship and chain migration served Wisconsin well in its 19th-century infancy, when it needed new workers and families to fill its land. The state advertised heavily in German newspapers and encouraged German families in Milwaukee to extoll the virtues of Wisconsin to their homeland relatives. Before the outbreak of World War I, Wisconsin was home to 30 percent of all German immigrants in the U.S.; even today, about 40 percent of state residents claim some German heritage.
But those days are gone. Today, a points-based immigration system based on talents, job skills, financial self-sufficiency and English knowledge to increase assimilation makes more sense. That’s not a ground-breaking idea — Canada has used one for years, and it is widely regarded as a success. Under its system, prospective immigrants are evaluated not only on their skills and qualifications, but on whether those skills match the needs of the labor market.
While sketchy, Trump’s plan also would institute a points-based system for worker visas, and would create a program to permit foreign students to obtain visas allowing them to immediately transition into the American workforce without have to obtain a worker visa after graduation.
That could square with a proposal from two years ago by U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., for expanded H1-B working visas based on geography, to spread workers across states. Johnson’s proposed bill, which did not advance, would have added 500,000 three-year worker visas across the country with 5,000 such visas granted in each state.
That, too, would address the workforce shortage gnawing away at the nation.
Yes, such programs should include paths to permanent residency and citizenship. Yes, could also resolve the issue of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, aka the “Dreamers,” as well.
Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, should put away their partisan cudgels and do what is best for America. They should take Trump’s plan off the shelf and reform immigration and visa rules to recognize the demographic realities of today.
The United States was built by immigrants. It needs new immigrant workers to continue to grow. Our immigration and visa laws should be based on bringing in workers with the skills and talents that best serve the needs of our country.