PoliticsForeign Policy


A Son Of Immigrants Makes The Case For Skills-based Immigration

Author Reihan Salam says his plan would bring the U.S. together: a skill-based visa system coupled with an amnesty for some undocumented immigrants.
Posted at 5:57 PM, Nov 15, 2018

Practical and emotion-free proposals to immigration issues are hard to come by these days. 

But National Review and The Atlantic writer Reihan Salam has taken up the challenge. In his new book, the son of Bangladeshi immigrants suggests a compromise: an amnesty for long-time undocumented immigrants coupled with a merit-based system that would benefit high-skilled immigrants.

To strike such a deal, progressives and conservatives would have to make hard concessions. The first headache? Selling the idea of an amnesty to conservative Republicans.

"Conservative voters are, for reasons I'm sympathetic to, very resistant to it. They fear it will be the first in a series of amnesties. And that's why I believe that you really need an amnesty that is coupled with very stringent enforcement, including workplace enforcement and a re-balancing of future immigration flows," Salam said.

That re-balancing of immigration flows is Salam's other difficult selling point. The conservative thinker believes we need more skill-based immigration and less based on family ties in the States.

The U.S. currently grants about 1.1 million green cards — or permanent resident visas — every year. About two-thirds of those go to immigrants with family connections in the U.S. And only 12 percent go to immigrants with job offers.

"Really, our system is just not very responsive to the changing needs of our economy and also the changing realities of a stratified society in which people with very low incomes are oftentimes struggling, whereas people with higher incomes tend to be in a better position to support themselves in their families," Salam said.

Last year, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue introduced an immigration bill including the kind of merit-based system that Salam recommends. President Donald Trump endorsed it.

But opponents said the point-based system ran counter to the country's interests and pointed to low-skilled immigrants in past generations who have contributed greatly to our country. Besides, they say, the system would discriminate against non-white immigrants. Salam's response: Our economy has evolved, and so should our immigration laws.

As the pace of automation accelerates, many experts say there might be fewer jobs for low-skill workers.

Salam also wants people to recognize that most advocates of immigration restrictions are not racists.

"A large majority of voters want a controlled and managed immigration system. They are indifferent to the skin color of newcomers, of intending immigrants, but they really do care about, for example, whether or not these women and men speak conversational English, whether or not they are capable of becoming full members of society without a very large infusion of public investment."

Salam also argues that low-income immigrants — by no fault of their own — are less likely to assimilate beyond their ethnic groups and more likely to need social services. In turn, that tends to aggravate anti-immigrant sentiments among some Americans. On the flip side, the children of impoverished immigrants tend to strongly resent the current ethnic inequality of our country.

So if we don't want our ethnic and class conflicts to intensify, Salam says we urgently need compromises like his that, over generations, would bring Americans back together.