Ideas. Action. Results.

Examining Merit-Based Immigration and How it Might Work in the U.S.


WHEN: Monday, February 5, 2018 10:00 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. ET

WHERE: Bipartisan Policy Center, 1225 Eye St NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC, 20005

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Over the last year, the Trump administration has proposed changing the U.S. immigration system from a predominately family-based immigration program to a merit-based immigration program, citing Canada and Australia’s points-based system as models. The administration claims that adopting this system will admit more high-skilled workers to the United States who will contribute to the economy. However, the debate over merit-based immigration in the United States has failed to explain how proposed merit-based legislation such as the RAISE Act is similar to Canadian and Australian systems’ scope and goals. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the United States can adopt the Canadian and Australian systems, given differences in the governance of immigration among the three countries.

On February 5, 2018, the Bipartisan Policy Center gathered a panel of three experts from Australia, Canada, and the United States to bring clarity to these issues. Those experts were Michael Willard, Assistant Secretary of the Immigration and Citizenship Policy Division at the Government of Australia; André Valotaire, the Minister Counsellor for Immigration at the Embassy of Canada; and Daniel Griswold, a Senior Research Fellow and Co-Director of the Program on the American Economy and Globalization at the Mercatus Center.

During the event, the Australian and Canadian experts provided an overview of their systems. Mr. Willard, who works on Australia’s skilled immigration and temporary visa program, discussed the foundation of the Australian immigration system. As he noted,

  • Australia currently has a migration and humanitarian program that provides 190,000 and 18,000 places per year, respectively.
  • Australia’s skilled migration program, which has 128,000 places, is a hybrid system that combines a points-based system with a demand-driven employer sponsorship model.
    • The system also includes a regional/state component where each state can nominate specific immigrants they want to come to their respective state.
  • Australia’s immigration program has shifted from a majority family sponsorship of immigrants to an equal split between family and employer sponsorship.

Mr. Valotaire, who is responsible for the Canadian embassy’s migration portfolio, also explained the major components of the Canadian immigration system. As he noted,

  • The Canadian immigration system has three components: merit-based (economic), family reunification and humanitarian resettlement.
    • The economic component forms 58 to 60 percent of immigrants, family reunification forms 27 percent of immigrants, and humanitarian forms 15 percent.
      • The merit-based component gives points for human capital and employment offers, but also for family based in Canada.
      • The family reunification component focuses on the immigrant’s nuclear family.
    • Canada’s immigration system allows 310,000 immigrants to enter each year with 88 percent of immigrants becoming Canadian citizens as early as possible.
    • In Canada, the provinces and territories share responsibility with the national government over several immigration areas, including specific selection of immigrants.
  • Quebec, with its French-speaking majority, has its own authority to admit francophone immigrants, often from West and North Africa.
  • Valotaire and Mr. Willard also noted that family reunification is critical for successfully integrating immigrants into their communities.

Mr. Valotarie and Mr. Willard also discussed how their countries use different methods to assess the efficacy of their immigration systems.

  • Australia uses a continuous survey of immigrants, with focus placed on the economic impact of immigrants, and NGO surveys regarding the current public attitude towards immigration.
  • Canada utilizes an annual government survey that polls public opinion about immigration and tracks the outcomes of immigrants, which involves analyzing immigrant tax data.
  • The Australian and Canadian parliaments approve their country’s immigration plan each year to meet their current and potential need for foreign labor.
    • Additionally, Canada’s Minister of Immigration has the authority to adjust the points system and to add additional programs.

During his remarks, Mr. Griswold compared the employment, family reunification and humanitarian components of the three systems. As he noted,

  • All three countries have similar levels of family reunification (2 to 2.5/1000 population) and humanitarian (.5/1000 population) immigration rates.
    • However, the employment immigration rates in Canada and Australia are much higher than in United States.
    • Canada has an immigration rate 9 times the U.S. rate (4.5/1000 population) while Australia 11 times the U.S. rate (5.5/1000 population).

He also noted that the United States could incorporate two components of the Australian and Canadian systems into its own.

  • The United States should accept a higher level of immigration as a proportion of the population.
  • The United States could move toward a merit-based immigration system while increasing the total number of immigrants that the country admits on an annual basis.
  • However, the United States does not have the ability to adjust the systems as frequently as Canada and Australia, given our legislative process.

In short, the Australian and Canadian systems provide the United States with potential avenues for developing a true merit-based system that harnesses the power of immigrants to strengthen the American economy.


Daniel Griswold
Senior Research Fellow, The Mercatus Center
Co-Director, Program on the American Economy and Globalization

Michael Willard
Assistant Secretary of the Immigration and Citizenship Policy Division at the Government of Australia

André Valotaire
Minister Counsellor, Immigration, Embassy of Canada