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Could Merit-Based Immigration Have Some Merit?

Friday, June 16, 2017

In December, Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times, attempting to make a populist economic appeal regarding immigration. The core of the senator’s argument is to keep immigration at the same level, but shift the focus toward admitting higher-skilled immigrants.
After the inauguration, the White House embraced this notion of a “merit-based” immigration system and has taken steps toward implementing it. While Cotton’s notions on immigration are largely cloaked in xenophobic jingoism and protectionist thinking (more jobs for low-skilled American workers, etc.), there may be a kernel of logic in his ideas.
There is considerable evidence that highly-skilled immigrants are a boon to the U.S. economy. At the same time, the president has threatened to gut the H-1B visa program that allows organizations to sponsor skilled foreign workers to work in the United States.
The current political climate shows little promise when it comes to sweeping immigration reform, at least in a way that actually favors immigration. Meanwhile, the federal government and several tech companies foresee an increasing shortage of native-born workers in several American growth sectors, such as medical and tech.
For several years, U.S. business leaders have warned that the cap on H-1B visas, currently at 85,000 (65,000 general and additional 20,000 for individuals with U.S.-issued advanced degrees), are too low. As sectors that need skilled workers grow and baby boomers retire, the gap between qualified candidates and unfilled jobs will widen.
American universities are not keeping up with the demand for graduates in STEM and medical professions. At the same time, many foreign students earning degrees in the U.S. see the hostility toward immigration from the incoming administration as a disincentive for attempting to work in the United States.
Perhaps the near-term solution, then, is a compromise that resembles some of Cotton’s ideas. If both sides of the aisle, along with the White House, can agree that the immigration of highly skilled workers is crucial for the U.S. economy — which is increasingly difficult to refute — then we can start moving toward a workable plan, as opposed to the current détente. 
Although shifting current immigration levels in favor of skilled workers over those with fewer skills seems rather un-American, it could be necessary to keep the U.S. economy growing until a better solution is reached.

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