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New Center at Law School Receives Grant to Study Immigration Points System

Should the United States switch to a points-based immigration system that evaluates applicants on factors including age, educational level, income, and English proficiency?

The benefits and drawbacks of adopting a points-based system will be explored in a research project at the Law School funded by a $300,000 grant from the Charles Koch Foundation. The one-year award is the first major grant given to the Law School’s Migration and Human Rights Program, founded in 2018.

Often called a merit-based immigration system, the points-based model is used in several other countries, including Canada and Australia. Under the system, an applicant’s eligibility to immigrate is determined in part by whether he or she can score above a certain number of points in a merit-based test.

“Our current system is tilted toward family-based immigration,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law practice, who will direct the study. “Some in the current administration argue that this is not the best way to select immigrants, and if we want to be globally competitive, we need to have more of a focus on merit.”

“Immigration is an important topic for U.S. society,” Yale-Loehr said. “We are happy that the Charles Koch Foundation is funding this important research, which could be one component in reforming our broken immigration system.”

In 2017, President Trump endorsed legislation called the Raise Act, which would create a merit-based system that would put a priority on skills and employability of migrants over family ties.

Opponents of a merit-based system argue that it could severely reduce the number of new green card holders admitted to the United States through family ties. One analysis conducted by the economist Ernie Tedeschi concluded that only about 2 percent of American citizens 18 or older would score above the threshold of 30 points on the test under the Raise Act.

Today, about 66 percent of the 1 million immigrants admitted to the United States annually are married to a U.S. citizen or have a sibling or other close relative in the country. Less than one fifth — about 140,000 — applicants are admitted because of employment considerations, said Yale-Loehr, who co-authored a book on the points system called Balancing Interests: Rethinking U.S. Selection of Skilled Immigrants (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1997).

Yale-Loehr said the research study will analyze how a points-based system works in other countries and whether such a model should be considered as one way to select some immigrants in the United States. The study will also research the impact a points-based system would have on U.S. immigration. The grant will pay for a post-doctoral student to help conduct the research and for a conference to be held in 2020 to discuss the findings.

“Empirical research studying the effects of different immigration systems will deepen society’s understanding of this critical issue,” said Charles Koch Foundation Executive Vice President Ryan Stowers. “We look forward to learning what Cornell scholars discover as a result of this important project.”

The Charles Koch Foundation supports students and scholars exploring a range of scholarly subjects including immigration, free expression, and criminal justice reform at more than 350 colleges and universities nationwide.

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