H-1B visas

Trump's Orwellian Plan to Make America's Immigration System 'Merit Based'

He is trying to get foreign techies to self deport or not come at all.


President Trump insists that the changes to immigration law he's proposing in exchange for protecting DREAMers a nickname for those illegally brought to

Foreign Students
Alexy Sukhuruzov Zuma via Newscom

America as children—would make our country's immigration system, like Canada's, more merit-based.

That would be awesome if it were true. Unfortunately, it is a complete lie. In fact, it is like saying that kneecapping someone would make them a better sprinter.

It is true that Canada's immigration system, though not perfect, is far superior to America's in many respects. Canada admits the vast majority of foreigners based on a point system that gives more weight to those with college degrees, youth, job offers, and English or French speaking skills. Foreigners who earn the requisite points are granted permanent residency—along with their nuclear family members—within a matter of months.

That is a far cry from how things work in America. Here, most high-skilled foreigners have to go through a painfully arduous process to obtain green cards.

First, their employer has to undertake the frustrating and expensive process of sponsoring them for an H-1B visa. This involves entering their name in the annual visa lottery, which gets over twice as many entries as it has slots. Even if they are among the lucky who land the coveted visa, they have to wait for years to obtain their green cards. Wait times for Indian and Chinese tech workers are running close to 20 years currently. Why? Because every country gets the same fixed annual green card allowance. So a massive backlog has developed for countries that are major donors of technical talent to America. During much of this time, these tech workers are stuck in their jobs, because switching might push them to the back of the green card queue.

The upshot of all this is that on a per-capita basis, Canada admits more than twice as many immigrants as the United States. And even though its system is not family based per se, Canada's rate of family immigration is roughly identical to America's—about 2.0 and 2.5 family-based immigrants per 1,000 residents, respectively. But Canada admits 4.5 employment-based immigrants per year compared to America's meager 0.5 per 1,000 residents.

If Trump were truly using Canada as his inspiration, he would radically streamline the immigration process for high-skilled immigrants. He could skip the H-1B stage altogether and hand green cards to them directly, just as Canada does. Or at least "staple" greencards to the diplomas of foreign students graduating from American universities (as Mitt Romney once proposed) or to the job offers of foreigners. Or increase the annual quota of H-1Bs. Or scrap the per-country annual limit on green cards. Or at minimum give the unused green card quota of one country to others like India and China that send more talent to America.

But Trump has proposed none of those things. His plan for making America's immigration system merit-based is by slashing family-based immigration.

Besides their nuclear family, Americans are now entitled to sponsor only their siblings, adult children, and parents — not their aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the rest. Siblings are afforded the lowest priority and take decades to process. Bringing parents into the country, by contrast, is not so hard—and definitely a bright spot in the American system compared to Canada. And so, of course, Trump is hellbent on eviscerating that by banning parents along with the other non-nuclear family members. All in all, he would cut legal family-based immigration by 40 percent without raising high-skilled immigration one iota.

But it gets worse.

Not only is Trump seeking no legislative fixes to liberalize America's high-skilled immigration program—contrary to the impression he gives when he harps about transforming America's system into a more merit-based one—he is actually backing a bill that would make the H-1B program practically unusable. A case in point is Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton's RAISE Act, which would require companies to pay foreign techies much more than market wages before being granted permission to hire them, basically pricing foreign talent out of the U.S. labor market.

And then there is Trump's regulatory assault on foreign tech workers. He is already contemplating scrapping the Bush-era STEM Opt program. This program gives foreign students in STEM fields three years after graduation to find employers that would sponsor them for H-1Bs and green cards. He is also eliminating work authorization for spouses of H-1Bs, which means that they would have to stay at home for all the years that it takes for their green cards to be processed—which can mean practically all of the productive years for Indian and Chinese spouses.

But none of this compares to the new red tape that Trump is wrapping around H-1B hopefuls. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has started issuing twice as many "requests for evidence" requiring employers to furnish more documentation to justify why they need a foreign-born worker for a job. And its denial rate has more than doubled from 7.7 percent of applications in 2016 to 17.6 percent in 2017. In one case, it denied the H-1B petition of a company that wanted to hire a Chinese student with a masters in business from Stanford, two law degrees, and four years of work experience at a "top international firm" in Hong Kong. In another instance, a company was asked to justify the visa petition for a rocket scientist!

The cruelest blow of all is the new obstacle course the administration has erected for H-1Bs seeking simply to renew their visas every three years, something that used to be a relatively easy process. Now they will be forced to undergo the same exacting scrutiny as if they were applying for the first time. And if their visas are refused, they'd lose their jobs—which would mean that many of them would have to pack up and leave even if they've made lives here while waiting patiently for their green cards.

The administration's motive here is clear: Make life so uncertain and miserable for foreign tech workers that they'll think twice before opting to come to America—and the red tape so time-consuming and costly for employers that they would think twice before hiring them.

Calling all this an effort to make America's immigration system merit-based is beyond Orwellian. The president should stop trying to fool the country and own up to his true designs.

This column was originally published in The Week