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Trump’s call for 'merit-based immigration,' explained

It’s probably code for less immigration.

Colombian Born Lucrecia Arbelaez and other candidates take the oath of allegiance to become US citizens during a Naturalization Ceremony for new US citizens at the City Hall of Jersey City, New Jersey on February 22, 2017.
Kena Betancur | AFP | Getty Images
Colombian Born Lucrecia Arbelaez and other candidates take the oath of allegiance to become US citizens during a Naturalization Ceremony for new US citizens at the City Hall of Jersey City, New Jersey on February 22, 2017.

Donald Trump, in his speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, did something that he rarely ever does: He spoke in code.

Trump called for the US to change its immigration system to be "merit-based" — one of those terms that is generally understood, in Washington, to refer to a specific policy. It's political code for changing the composition of people settling in America to favor educated, highly skilled immigrants and reduce family-based immigration, which allows US citizens and permanent residents to bring certain family members to settle permanently in the US.

Trump isn't known for his subtlety, and "phrases that policy wonks understand to be specific, but regular folks think are just rhetoric" really isn't his style. But on Tuesday, he made it clear that he's committed to reducing family-based and low-skilled immigration, according to the "merit-based" playbook.

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What's a lot less clear is whether the Trump administration wants to let in more highly skilled immigrants — or whether it wants to use "merit" as a reason to keep people out, but not to let people in.

'Merit-based immigration' is about changing the proportions of who the US lets in

For the past 50 years, there have been multiple paths to come to the US as an immigrant. You can come for work, usually, at first, as a "non-immigrant" temporary worker. You can come, permanently, as the relative of a US citizen or green card holder. You can come as a refugee. You can come through the "visa lottery" for immigrants from underrepresented countries.

In general, though, when politicians think about the balance of immigrants allowed into the US, the work-based and family-based lanes are the two they focus on.

Reforming the immigration system to be more "merit-based" is predicated on the idea that some of these slots are going to the wrong immigrants — immigrants who don't have as much to give the US as the US has to give them. Proponents point to Australia and Canada — places that don't have the American tradition of family-based migration, and that deliberately select for immigrants who are likely to contribute economically and assimilate culturally from the moment they arrive. In these countries, having a family member who's already a citizen doesn't guarantee you a spot as an immigrant yourself — having an advanced degree, being fluent in the language, and being able to support yourself (or have a job waiting for you when you arrive) matter as much or more.

In particular, proposals to make the US immigration system more "merit-based" usually reduce the number of spots available for immigrants who are coming for reasons other than their skills — family-based immigration and the visa lottery, for example — and ensure that a greater share of immigrants coming to the US are highly educated and highly skilled.

A bill proposed by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and passed out of the House Judiciary Committee in 2013, for example, would have created 55,000 new green cards a year for immigrants with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics degrees, while cutting overall family-based migration by 40,000 and scrapping the visa lottery (another 55,000 annual immigrants) entirely.

Is the point more high-skilled immigrants, or fewer low-skilled ones?

But Issa's bill — and merit-based immigration proposals more generally — are supported by two distinct groups of politicians with very different views of the immigration system as a whole.

In one group are politicians like Issa, who are primarily pro-business and, in particular, supportive of the technology industry. Their aim is to increase the number of highly skilled, highly educated immigrants coming to the US — to make sure that the US doesn't miss the opportunity to attract as many of "the best and the brightest" as possible. Reducing other kinds of immigration to increase high-skilled immigration is just the price of admission — a product of the fact that it's easier, politically, to give one group of immigrants a bigger share of the pie at the cost of another group than to make the pie bigger.

But "merit-based" proposals are also, in many cases, supported by people whose overarching goal is to reduce immigration and improve assimilation. These people are worried about family-based "chain migration" providing a continuous inflow of immigrants to the US; they're worried about the effects of low-skilled immigrant workers (including many immigrants who come via the family-based system, since they're not selected based on skill) on the job market; they're worried about the ability of immigrants who aren't highly educated to learn English and fit in.

Highly educated, skilled immigrants will be able (in theory) to assimilate and contribute economically from the moment they arrive in the US, so it's better, for restrictionists, to have high-skilled than low-skilled immigrants. But the goal isn't to have more high-skilled immigrants; it's to have fewer low-skilled ones.

Key Trump advisers are wary of high-skilled immigrants, too

The Trump administration is very firmly in the latter camp. They want to reduce immigration of all kinds, and especially immigration from people they don't think can assimilate into American culture — whether that's because they're low-skilled or because they're Muslim.

They're so firmly restrictionist, in fact, that it's not clear Trump's key advisers — most notably, chief strategist Steve Bannon — actually think high-skilled immigration is good for America, either.

This might be the rare issue on which the two leading immigration policymakers in the Trump administration disagree. In an interview from 2016 that my colleague Tara Golshan wrote about earlier this month, Miller appears to endorse permanent immigration from high-skilled immigrants (just not temporary high-skilled work visas). That's consistent with the restrictionist case for merit-based immigration. But Bannon's primary concern appears to be that immigrants are coming here to take careers in the tech industry that once would have gone to Americans.

If you are in your 40s and 50s right now, people will tell you, they haven't had a raise in decades in IT. What was supposed to be a great career turned out not to be a great career. It's because of these visas.

And now you got all the engineering schools full of people from South Asia and East Asia. And it's not that I have any problem with those folks learning, but they are coming here to take these jobs.

Bannon's said on other occasions that he affirmatively wants immigrants who study science at US colleges to return to their home countries to start their careers — the opposite of a "merit-based" proposal to encourage such students to settle in the US. And he's expressed concern about the number of tech CEOs who are "South Asian or from Asia," because "a country is more than an economy. We're a civic society" — implying that increased ethnic diversity and pluralism ruins America's essential character.

Trump himself has run hot and cold on whether high-skilled foreigners should be encouraged or discouraged from immigrating. He's occasionally assailed the H1B visa program for allowing outsourcing firms and tech companies to undercut wages and replace native-born citizens with cheaper replacements — an accusation that isn't unfounded, and that is shared by politicians on both sides of the aisle. But when tech CEOs stressed to Trump in a meeting that he needed to increase H1Bs, he implied he supported that, too.

Unless Trump has a strong position on this issue that simply gets lost in translation half the time he talks about it, Bannon and Miller are running the show. And at least one of them doesn't appear to like "merit-based" immigration as anything other than an excuse to restrict immigration, period.