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Immigration Systems in Transition

The history of both the Australian and Canadian immigration systems covers three distinct periods in which the countries maintained race-based models between the 1920s and 1960s-70s, implemented points-based systems after ending their race-based programs, and revised the points-based systems over time to improve their ability to select migrants and eliminate backlogs.

  • Australia and Canada maintained race-based policies that promoted the immigration of people from Europe to expand their populations until the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Although Australia and Canada gradually shed their racist policies in the 1960s and 1970s, they did not implement their points-based systems right away.
    • Canada had a five-year period where it maintained a proto-points system that assessed an individual’s education, skills, occupation, job offer with a Canadian employer, and their likelihood of integrating in Canada.
    • The Australian government increased family-based immigration after it ended its race-based system in 1973.
  • Both countries made the transition to points-based systems following these interregnum periods.
    • The Canadian government used its executive authority to adopt the points system in 1967 that used ideas from the proto system that existed between 1962 and 1967.
    • In 1979, the Australian government adopted the Numerical Multifactor Assessment System, it’s version of the points-based system, borrowing from the Canadian system, which focused on economic migration.
  • Australia and Canada have revised their points-based systems over time to improve the selection of candidates and eliminate backlogs.
    • Both countries eventually adopted an “expression of interest” system based on New Zealand’s points-based system, which ranks individuals who meet a given points threshold and invites them to apply for permanent residence.
    • Australia adopted SkillSelect, its own version of the expression of interest system, in 2012 to address growing backlogs stemming from the number of individuals eligible for permanent residence that exceeded permanent slots.
    • Canada followed suit in 2015 when it introduced Express Entry to tackle backlogs stemming from similar issues.

Australia and Canada’s successful implementation and revision of their immigration systems depended on governmental decisions, political and bureaucratic institutions, and data gathering operations to provide objective bases for revisions to the systems.

  • In the 1980s, the Canadian government developed messaging stating that Canada benefits economically from a well-managed migration system in order to get public support for increasing immigration to offset population loss.
  • Australian Prime Minister John Howard adopted a “tough, but fair” message on immigration after 1996 to support an expansion of skilled migration, limits on family-based migration, and deterrence of asylum seekers arriving by boat.

The presence of parliamentary government systems, immigration laws that expanded executive authority, and executive instruments to adopt non-legislative changes allowed Canada and Australia to make rapid and dramatic changes to their immigration systems to meet their political goals, largely without additional legislation.

  • Australia’s Migration Act of 1958 provides the Australian executive significant power to change the selection criteria for immigration.
  • Canadian governments used non-legislative executive instruments – especially known as Orders-in-Council – to eliminate the race-based system, implement the points-based system, and adopt Express Entry.

Finally, the governments of both countries gathered extensive data to assess the outcomes of their points-based systems to determine if the systems met the new political and economic goals and whether the governments needed to make additional adjustments.

  • In 1980, Canada created the Longitudinal Immigration Database, which combines immigration and census records, to revise the points-based system.
  • Australia followed suit in 2009 when it introduced the Continuous Survey of Australia’s Migrants to track labor market outcomes.

This history has several lessons that can be learned by policymakers and organizations thinking about the implementation of new immigration systems like a points-based one in the United States.

Although U.S. proposals for new immigration systems frequently identify policy goals, they overlook creating a strategy for getting the public’s support for these goals and the mechanisms to implement them. Proponents of new systems should also assess how prioritizing one type of migration over another may create imbalances in the system.

  • What should be the new system’s priorities for selecting different categories of migrants?
  • How can the United States secure public support for these specific goals?
  • How will the government maintain this support over time?

The United States has established a system of checks and balances between the Executive Branch and Congress that makes it difficult to make rapid, dramatic overhauls of the U.S. immigration system. If policymakers want a dynamic system like the ones that exist in Australia and Canada, lawmakers will need to address this aspect of the U.S. political system.

  • Should we have an immigration system that exists mostly in statute or in regulation that can be changed more frequently?
  • What is the proper balance of power between the Executive and Congress to enact changes?
  • Should a new system implement new independent actors and/or agencies to balance these competing interests?

The Australian and Canadian cases show that the United States may need to make investments in the agencies that oversee the immigration system and gather data about its outcomes. The adoption of SkillSelect and Express Entry also show that the United States may need to make dramatic revisions of the system to address backlogs and other residual components of the past system during the transition process.

  • How do you develop a transition plan for the new system?
  • What investments will the United States have to make in data gathering operations?
  • How will we deal with residual parts of the old system like the visa backlog?

The effective selection of migrants and management of migration necessitates institutions that allow governments to make sometimes dramatic changes to their migration programs with public support based on actionable data. U.S. policymakers must understand these factors – and answer the questions in this report – to create an immigration system that represents the best elements of the U.S. political system and the country’s immigration heritage.

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