Immigrants rally in California in 2006.

Immigrants rally in California in 2006. Joseph Sohm /

Analysis: How to Fix the Broken U.S. Immigration System

We must deal with a years-long backlog and millions of undocumented workers, while remaining competitive in a global marketplace.

President Donald Trump says that the U.S. immigration system is broken, and in recent days he has railed against what he says is an “invasion” by Central American migrants making their way to the United States. Along with a regular diet of tweets to that effect, he has accelerated the process begun during the Obama presidency of deporting those in the country illegally; criticized the migration of family members of American citizens; and called for a merit-based system of immigration.

Trump’s support for a policy that attracts skilled workers might run counter to his administration’s actual actions, but it underscores a conundrum that has bedeviled successive presidential administrations: how to fix the country’s immigration system, with its years-long backlogs and millions of undocumented workers, while remaining competitive in a global marketplace.

Any answer would draw from the three elements that make up legal immigration in the Western world: an economic stream, a family stream, and a humanitarian stream. “You would have to make almost Solomonic judgments about the distribution” of migrants among the three, Demetrios Papademetriou, the co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said.

The U.S. is not alone in facing this quandary. Across the Western world, domestic populations are aging, birth rates are declining, and there’s a dearth of workers in key sectors of the economy. In Europe, immigration has been at the center of an often toxic political debate. Both Britain, which ostensibly voted to leave the European Union over, among other things, immigration, and Denmark, where a nationalist anti-immigration party is part of the ruling center-right government, are trying to reconfigure their systems to attract highly educated workers.

Of course, if immigration overhauls were politically palatable, they would have been in place long ago. But if the United States were able to redesign the system from scratch, how would it do it? (TL;DR: It would look nothing like it does now.)

An Economic Stream

Any new system would likely favor economic migration, making it easier for people to move for work. New Zealand, Australia, and Canada offer useful examples of how.

New Zealand, where one in four people were born elsewhere, has one of the world’s most innovative migration systems. The country of 4 million is not afraid to experiment, actively manages the process, and jettisons ideas that don’t work. Australia, where a similar proportion of the 24 million people were born overseas, has adopted some of New Zealand’s most successful policies and implemented them in its own, far larger system.

Both countries make it simple for anyone with a job to move and work there and offers them a well-defined path to citizenship. Each also employs a points-based system that would draw those immigrants most likely to settle in quickly.

The idea underpinning these countries’ systems, though, is the same: Labor needs would be met by allowing employers to choose their workers. The government, through the study of past cohorts of migrants, would ensure that the number of migrants isn’t putting pressure on local services or hurting domestic workers. The system would combine an employer-sponsored visa and points to attract those individuals who can adapt well to the new culture through language, education, and experience.

“If I were the czar of this, in an ideal system, I would not only make [the economic stream] the largest component of the immigration system, but probably the overwhelming component: somewhere in the neighborhood of between three-fifths and two-thirds of all immigration,” Papademetriou said.

Any new system would also, however, need to draw both high- and low-skilled workers. Low-skilled migration already dominates the food and agriculture, social-care, and health-care sectors. Often, it is not visible to us.

A Family Stream

Economic migration and family migration serve different ends, but both are important. While people moving to a country to join family members may not do as well as skilled economic migrants, the purpose of family migration is less tangible.

“It may have economic impact; it may have economic benefits or costs, but the goals of family migration is ensuring family unity,” said Madeleine Sumption, the director of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University.

Supporters of this type of migration point out the intangible benefits that families provide: a support network for new arrivals, child care for relatives, and even loans for businesses.

So countries shouldn’t necessarily focus overwhelmingly on economic migrants. “The thing that people forget is that a lot of the partners of skilled migrants are family migrants, but they’re also skilled, and over time, family migrants also contribute to the economy,” Anna Boucher, the co-author of Crossroads: Immigration Regimes in an Age of Demographic Change, said.

Indeed, few people would seriously argue that the United States has been hurt economically by its preference for family migration. It remains the world’s largest economy and among its most competitive.

There are, however, questions to resolve. Chief among them: What, exactly, is a family? That question is at the heart of the debate over Trump’s plan for immigration reform. The U.S. has a broader definition of a family than other rich countries. It allows Americans, including those who became citizens through naturalization, to sponsor parents, spouses, children (both minor and adult), and siblings. Other countries are far more restrictive, usually allowing a citizen or recent immigrant to bring just a nuclear family along and, in some cases, parents.

A Humanitarian Stream

Refugees are a tiny part of a rich country’s immigration system. The overwhelming majority—about 85 percent—of the world’s 25 million registered refugees live in developing nations, often in camps near their home countries. According to United Nations data, less than 1 percent of refugees are resettled in rich countries each year, mostly in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the Nordic countries.

That hasn’t prevented refugees from being the focus of intense political debate in Europe and the U.S., primarily because they are often poor, have limited skills, and are viewed by their critics as taking up resources in the host country. (This is to say nothing of fears, however unfounded, that extremists may be using the system to slip into Western countries.) But some governments have made the bet that accepting refugees today could pay off in the future.

Take Sweden, for instance. Amid the surge of migrants to Europe in 2015, it received more asylum-seekers per capita than any other European country, and this has definitely put pressure on its immigration system. The country’s immigration system is mostly humanitarian in nature, and the unemployment rate among the foreign-born (who are not necessarily all refugees) is 20 percent, more than three times the national level.

At the same time, however, Sweden’s economy is growing—and much of that growth has been fueled by those born overseas. While reporting on another story this year, I learned that Sweden’s economy was benefiting from the migrants who came years ago as children fleeing conflicts in Bosnia, Iran, Iraq, and Somalia. They are educated in the Swedish system, find jobs easily, and help the economy grow. In other words, new humanitarian migrants might have trouble integrating into their host countries because of a lack of skills, but their children have much better outcomes.

Irregular Migrants

None of these arguments for a new model of immigration take into account temporary migrant flows. There are at least 4 million students who have left their home countries to pursue higher education abroad. Receiving nations have adopted different policies toward them: The U.K., for instance, has put in place restrictions on the ability of students to work once they’ve completed their studies. Others, like Australia, have embraced policies designed to provide a pathway for the students to stay.

Temporary workers are another part of the numbers. Australia, for instance, allows them to enter on a working-holiday visa. Foreigners fill positions in sectors such as agriculture and mining for which there are insufficient local workers. Boucher, who is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, said that in such sectors immigration is “almost seen as a stopgap measure, and then over time it becomes the solution.”

The Future

Increasingly, wealthy autocracies such as China, the Gulf states, and Singapore are adopting immigration programs for high-skilled migrants (though they accept few refugees). Boucher said these non-democracies are often more agile in seeking temporary economic migrants than their democratic counterparts.

“If you’re a highly skilled worker, and you’re not that politicized, and you know you’re not going to stay there forever, and you’re going to get more money, you’re going to get a nice apartment, and you’re going to get a nanny, or two nannies, and a housekeeper,” she said, “why would you not go to Abu Dhabi, or go to Singapore, over Sydney?”