Trump Unveils Plan to Slash US Immigration Numbers and Move to Merit-Based System

United States President Donald Trump and two Republican Senators have presented an US immigration plan that would move the country towards what they call a ‘merit-based’ system that rewards highly skilled workers. The plan would also cut legal immigration to the US by around 50 percent over the coming decade.

Before and after coming to power, President Trump has cited Canada as an example for the US to emulate when it comes to immigration. However, the plan presented by Trump and Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue at the White House today — known as the Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act — shows significant differences from the Canadian immigration system.

In Canada, immigration levels for 2017 were set at a target of 300,000, representing nearly one percent of the population. This figure does not include the many hundreds of thousands of foreign workers and students who come to Canada each year, many of whom go on to become permanent residents.

Trump’s plan would bring US immigration numbers from a current rate of just over one million ‘Green Cards’ issued per year down to around just over half a million, representing around 0.15 percent of the population. On a per capita basis, Canada’s immigration levels would then be around six times greater than the US.

While the US administration attempts to push through this immigration legislation, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Ahmed Hussen, recently announced that the 300,000 per annum figure would become Canada’s baseline intake for the coming years, with scope for higher intake over time. Hussen was appointed earlier this year by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Liberal leader who has built much of his political success around a pro-immigration and pro-diversity agenda.

Internationally and domestically, the Liberal Party is perceived as avowedly pro-immigration. Indeed, all federal parties in Canada currently represented in the House of Commons are, to a greater or lesser extent, in favour of high immigration levels.


The Trump immigration plan places a greater emphasis on skilled workers than previously and removes certain family reunification categories. The proposal would no longer give green card preference to the extended family or adult children of immigrants who already live legally in the US. The plan would also end diversity lottery visas and curb the number of refugees offered permanent residence in the US.

Opponents of the plan argue that it does not increase skilled immigration, but rather cuts non-economic categories like family reunification and the diversity visa while creating a points-based system for employment-based green cards that does not actually increase the numerical intake cap.

Though the plan has a long way to go before becoming law and could face resistance in Congress from members of both parties, the direction of the US executive and legislative branches is certainly not moving in the direction of welcoming more immigrants. Quite the opposite, in fact. Not only do potential applicants for immigration to the US face uncertainty as to whether they may be eligible to apply in the future, but existing applicants also often face long wait times that can go into many years.

The current text of the RAISE Act does not provide details of the points breakdown for various factors that may be under consideration, though President Trump has said that individuals would “favour applicants who can speak English, financially support themselves and their families, and demonstrate skills that contribute to our economy.” The President also stated that new immigrants to the US would be prevented from collecting welfare.

The picture is far clearer in Canada, which since 2015 has successfully operated its Express Entry immigration selection system for skilled workers. Candidates are eligible either by having worked in Canada, through their experience in a trades occupation, or by accumulating 67 points (out of a possible 100) under the Federal Skilled Worker Class. These candidates are assigned a points total under a Comprehensive Ranking System (CRS) and enter a pool, from which the government of Canada selects the highest-ranked candidates through periodic draws on a priority basis. Candidates remaining in the pool can take steps to improve their ranking, and thus the chances of them being invited to apply for permanent residence. Complete applications are usually processed to completion within six months.

In addition, Canada’s decentralized immigration system hands certain powers to the provinces, which can then set eligibility criteria for entry to their labour markets through the Provincial Nominee Programs (PNPs). So far, the co-sponsors of the RAISE Act and President Trump have not mentioned any state involvement in any future US immigration system.

“At this juncture, the points factors remain opaque and the US plan does not seem to involve states in the process of welcoming newcomers to the country. Claims from the President and the co-sponsors of this bill to be using Canada as inspiration seem to be tenuous, at least at this point. Any bill that truly seeks to create a skills-based immigration system based on the Canadian model would include a state-sponsored or state-nominated migration system,” says Attorney David Cohen.

“Moreover, the rhetoric coming from these elected officials is all about how they can help Americans. That’s all well and good, but the language does not remind listeners that existing populations and immigrants benefit from robust, well-planned immigration strategies, as we have seen here in Canada.”

Could Canada’s immigration rate end up higher than the US in per capita and real terms?

If the US administration gets its wish, immigration levels to that country will be just about more than what Canada takes in annually. If Canada then makes moves to increase its intake, as it very well may do, it could be the case that Canada’s intake level creeps up to US levels in real terms. By that point, per capita immigration levels to Canada would be as much as 10 times higher than in the US.

Last year, a government advisory group recommended that Canada increase immigration levels to around 450,000per year.

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