Sen. Orrin Hatch: America needs a merit-based immigration system

For the last two decades, debates over immigration reform have largely focused on illegal immigration. In recent weeks, however, the debate has increasingly turned to proposals dealing with legal immigration and the way we award green cards, which allow immigrants to live and work permanently in the U.S.

At last week’s State of the Union address, President Trump outlined four “pillars” of his proposed immigration framework. The first two pillars deal with illegal immigration. The first calls for a pathway to citizenship for individuals brought illegally to the United States as children. The second calls for increased border security.

The framework’s third and fourth pillars are less familiar. They address legal immigration. The third pillar calls for ending the visa lottery, through which 50,000 individuals each year from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States receive green cards. The fourth pillar calls for revising current family-based immigration laws to reduce the number of green cards awarded on the basis of family connections.

Predictably, President’s Trump’s plan was met with howls of outrage on the left. Critics charged the president with showing animosity, not just toward illegal immigration, but toward legal immigration as well.

The notion that our legal immigration laws merit rethinking, however, is not anti-immigrant. Rather, it’s a question of allocation.

Through the visa lottery, we award 50,000 green cards each year based on country of origin. Through our current family-based immigration laws, we award hundreds of thousands of additional green cards on the basis of family connections. U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents can sponsor parents, children, siblings, and others for green cards.

No one disputes that family relationships are extremely important. As the father of six children, I know as well as anyone the importance of family.

But that doesn’t mean family connections, or country of origin, should take priority over other considerations, like education or skill level, in awarding limited numbers of green cards.

Each year, far more people apply to enter our country than there are available green cards. This means we must choose who gets priority and who doesn’t.

And in our increasingly competitive, globalized economy, it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether an immigration system that focuses more on education and skills than on country of origin and family connections might better advance America’s interests.

Today American companies compete not just with each other, but with companies across the globe. Businesses need the best available talent to succeed, and America needs the world’s best and brightest to keep itself at the forefront of innovation.

That’s why I recently reintroduced my Immigration Innovation Act, or I-Squared, to ensure that employers are able to hire – and retain – workers with the skills they need. I-Squared does this by increasing the number of available high-skilled visas and by streamlining the process by which a skilled worker can transition to green card status.

I-Squared also simplifies the process by which students who come to the United States for college or graduate school can obtain permanent employment following graduation. Few things make less sense than welcoming bright, hard-working individuals to our country to be educated and then sending them back home to compete against us.

As we consider proposals to reform legal immigration, our focus needs to be on how we can design a system that better meets the needs of 21st century America. And high-skilled immigration must be at the center of that discussion.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. We already have high-skilled immigration programs in our existing laws. Visa categories like EB1, EB2 and EB3, as well as H-1B, are designed for immigrants with in-demand skills.

In my view, an eminently reasonable resolution to the current debates about the visa lottery and family-based immigration would be to reallocate green cards currently set aside for the lottery and for parents, siblings, and adult children to high-skilled visa categories.

At the same time, we should take the opportunity to fix any flaws in these categories’ current structure. This commonsense approach would help ensure that we have a modern workforce with the skills employers need, while avoiding rabbit-hole discussions about overall levels of immigration that are likely to take us nowhere.

Let me be clear. I’m not calling for any reduction in legal immigration. Legal immigration always has been, and always will be, essential to our country’s success and economic prosperity. Moreover, there is no way that any immigration proposal that contains cuts to legal immigration will attain sufficient congressional support to become law.

What I am calling for is a smarter, better calibrated legal immigration system that gives greater priority to education and skill level, just like my I-Squared bill does.

Now that the moment has come to talk about legal immigration, let’s be smart. Let’s talk about high-skilled immigration and how we can design a legal immigration system that will prepare our country for success for decades to come.

Republican Orrin Hatch represents Utah in the United States Senate.