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The Immigration Test Trump Should Have Proposed


Donald Trump recently proposed a new ideological test that would limit immigrants seeking admission to the United States to “those who share our values and respect our people.”

Like all his proposals, this new one is heavy in rhetoric but light on detail regarding what constitutes a good test. Who would be subject to this test? How will it be administered? How would cheating be prevented (after all, anyone can easily fake loyalty to game a system)?

Subjecting immigration applicants to a test, or a point-based scoring system, is nothing new. Canada and Australia have developed very effective point-based scoring systems to evaluate skilled immigration applicants. Trump and his advisors should take a look at what they’ve done to put some meat behind his policy proposals.

The Economic Skills Test

The Canadian immigration system has 10 categories (versus the more than two dozen categories in the United States), the first seven of which focus on attracting skilled workers, also known as economic-class immigrants. The Canadian immigration system defines skilled workers as “people who are selected as permanent residents based on their ability to become economically established in Canada.”

People who intend to immigrate as skilled workers do not have to have a job offer at the time of application, but they do have to pass an automated point-system (a.k.a. test) that evaluates their skills, experiences, and education. Canada added the skilled trade category in 2013 to address a labor shortage in certain segments of their economy. A skill-traded applicant has to have a job offer from a Canadian employer, but there is no education requirement. The only two requirements are minimum language skills (English or French) and at least two years’ work experience in the skilled trade the applicant is applying for.

Since January 1, 2015, Canada has further improved its point-based system for skilled workers by implementing the Express Entry system. Express Entry is a web-based system that lets a potential immigrant do an online self-assessment to find out if he or she is eligible to immigrate to Canada. This self-assessment is a point-based system and takes about 15 minutes to complete.

Let’s use the Federal Skilled Worker (FSW) program as an example of how this point-based system enables Canada to attract self-sufficient skilled workers to contribute to its economy. Applicants are required to have a minimum of one year’s work experience and a minimum language ability (a proof of language test is required). In addition, applicants are asked to fill out a scorecard online, which will assess each applicant based on six selection categories.

Federal Skilled Worker Scorecard
Selection Factor Maximum points
English and/or French skills 28
Education 25
Experience 15
Age 12
Arranged employment in Canada 10
Adaptability 10
Total 100

According to the Canada Immigration and Citizenship (CIC) website, if your score is 67 points or higher, you may qualify to immigrate to Canada as a federal skilled worker. The system will ask you to create an online profile within the system, including registration with Canada’s job bank, and place your profile in a candidate pool with others ranked candidates.

Top-ranking candidates will receive an invitation to apply for skill-based permanent residency in Canada and can then fill out an application online. If your score is lower than the pass mark of 67 points, you will not qualify to immigrate to Canada as a federal skilled worker. Your application will be automatically declined.

What We Can Learn

Several things about this scorecard system stand out. First, the language requirement. Canada has a minimum language requirement (English or French) for skill-related immigration, while the United States doesn’t. The Canadian immigration system requires applicants to demonstrate ability in listening, speaking, reading, and writing in English or French. An applicant must take a language test, and the result can’t be more than two years old.

The scorecard obviously favors those who have a better grasp of English or French, because it gives language ability the highest point value. The emphasis on language ability makes sense, because language proficiency has long been associated with immigrants’ successful assimilation and economic well-being. A research paper by Sege Nadeau, a professor at the University of Ottawa, shows that immigrants to Canada who are very proficient in either English or French earn as much as 39 percent more than immigrants who are minimally proficient. By having a language requirement, the Canadian system ensures new immigrants can successfully integrate into Canadian society.

Second, the scorecard gives more weight to education, experience, and age than to arranged employment. As we discussed earlier, the skilled worker program is designed to attract people who have the ability to contribute to Canada’s economy. The odds of finding employment for someone who is young, well-educated, and speaks English or French fluently is high. The United States doesn’t have a similar program. U.S. immigration policy on employment-based immigration makes having an arranged job offer a must, but gives little consideration to what kind of job.

Third, the Canadian immigration system gives an immigration applicant autonomy and empowers him or her to do most of the work. Anyone can go online and do a self-assessment. A potential applicant doesn’t need a sponsor; all he or she can count on is his or her own ability, knowledge, education, and experience.

The process itself is an assessment of the candidate’s self-reliance and merit: a person who is capable of understanding the instructions, following through, and providing supporting documents is likely someone who can make it in Canada. In the United States, however, the majority of legal immigrants require some form of sponsorship, whether it’s a family member, employer, or humanitarian agency. Thus, the U.S. immigration system engenders dependency, whereas the Canadian system engenders self-reliance.

Emphasizing Skilled Immigration Works

Australia uses a similar point system to select immigrants, which evaluates an applicant’s age, English language ability, education, and skills. Australia’s point system puts more emphasis on work experience and an existing employment offer than the Canadian system. Applicants can take the assessment online. The total possible points for Australia’s system is 120, and the passing grade is 60.

In addition to meeting the minimum passing score, applicants must select an occupation from the Australian government’s Skilled Occupation List and have their skills assessed by a recognized authority (most often a non-governmental entity such as a trade group or association) to prevent cheating.

The Canadian and Australian points-based scoring systems to select immigrants are straightforward, transparent, simple, objective, and effective. Their results have been impressive. Each year, close to 70 percent of legal immigrants to either Canada or Australia are skilled-based. Canadian government data shows the labor participation rate for immigrants through the federal skilled worker program was 89 percent, and average salary was CAN $40,000 in year one and $47,000 in year two. In Australia, the labor force participation rate of independent skilled immigrants is 96 percent, much higher than the 67 percent among native-born Australians. Eighty-five percent of these immigrants are working full-time with a median earning of AUD $79,000.

Both the Canadian and Australian experiences demonstrate that a country can reap great cultural, social, and economic benefits from the right immigration policy. It is time for the United States to adopt a similar point-based immigration system. This is the kind of “test” Trump should have proposed. With such a system, our nation can ensure we are rolling out a welcome mat to the kind of immigrants we want, the kind who are willing to work hard, easily assimilate to our society, and will contribute to our country, while ensuring their own success and happiness.