When Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) proposed reducing U.S. legal immigration levels by half, he highlighted Canada, a country that admits four times as many immigrants as a percentage of its population as the United States. Canada has announced it will boost its annual immigration level to 500,000 by 2025, illustrating that a high level of immigration compared to other nations is a central feature of Canada’s immigration system.
“Last year Canada welcomed over 405,000 newcomers—the most we’ve ever welcomed in a single year,” said Sean Fraser, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, in a press statement. “The Government is continuing that ambition by setting targets in the new levels plan of 465,000 permanent residents in 2023, 485,000 in 2024 and 500,000 in 2025. . . . This plan helps cement Canada’s place among the world’s top destinations for talent, creating a strong foundation for continued economic growth, while also reuniting family members with their loved ones and fulfilling Canada’s humanitarian commitments.”
The most significant statistic in Canada’s latest report highlights how critical immigration is to the country’s labor force growth: “Immigration accounts for almost 100% of Canada’s labor force growth, and, by 2032, it’s projected to account for 100% of Canada’s population growth,” according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
In the United States, opponents of immigration have promoted the “lump of labor fallacy,” the notion discredited by economists that there is a fixed quantity of labor needed in an economy. As a result, the focus of immigration restrictionists has been to reduce labor force growth under the mistaken belief that it would help the U.S. economy. Economists note that labor force growth is an essential element of economic growth, which is needed to elevate the standard of living in a country.
As in Canada, immigration is crucial to labor force growth in the United States. Economists note that by reducing immigration—such as when the Trump administration enacted restrictive administrative changes—government officials harm the U.S. economy.
By 2025, Canada will admit 12.5 immigrants per 1,000 residents, compared to the United States welcoming 3.0 immigrants per 1,000 residents in 2025, based on a National Foundation for American Policy projection. In other words, Canada will admit approximately four times as many immigrants as the United States on a per capita basis. If the United States adopted all elements of the Canadian system, the U.S. would admit more than 4 million immigrants a year instead of the approximately 1 million permanent residents admitted in FY 2019, the last year before the Covid-19 pandemic.
By 2025, Canada will admit twice as many family immigrants as the United States as a percentage of population and several times more refugees and humanitarian admissions per capita.
The RAISE Act
In August 2017, Sen. Tom Cotton and Sen. David Purdue (R-GA) cited the Canadian immigration system in arguing for their new bill the RAISE Act. “The RAISE Act would replace the current permanent employment-visa system with a skills-based points system, akin to the systems used by Canada and Australia,” according to a Cotton-Perdue press release.
Analysis shows Sen. Cotton and others have proposed a point system not to help employers or make the United States more competitive, but to eliminate family immigration categories and reduce immigration. In addition to admitting many fewer immigrants, the RAISE Act would have eliminated approximately 4 million people from family and employment-based immigration backlogs who had waited in line for years.
Cotton and Purdue made what economists would consider a contradictory argument for their bill. The senators argued their legislation would “spur economic growth” while “reducing overall immigration by half.” However, reducing immigration would lead to lower economic growth, not “spur” it. Joel Prakken, senior managing director and co-founder of Macroeconomic Advisers, estimated a 50% reduction in legal immigration would lead U.S. economic growth to decline by 12.5% from its projected levels.
Analysts note that the RAISE Act or similar proposals, by instituting a points-based system and eliminating nearly all family immigration categories, would deprive Americans and business owners of the freedom to sponsor close family members or coveted workers. During a Fox News candidate forum in Ohio, J.D. Vance endorsed the RAISE Act, which would worsen labor shortages by reducing immigration, in response to an Ohio business owner who said he could not find enough workers due to widespread labor shortages.
On February 15, 2018, the U.S. Senate rejected a measure to eliminate most family immigration categories, voting it down on a “cloture motion” 60-39. A Trump presidential proclamation contained a similar “suspension” of immigrants entering the United States in those categories.
Canadian and Australian Point Systems Unlikely To Work In America
A report from the National Foundation for American Policy and National Immigration Forum explains why a Canadian or Australian-style point system would likely be a poor fit for the United States. (I wrote the report.)
First, after examining the Canadian and Australian immigration systems, the primary conclusion from the report was that a point system wouldn’t work in the United States, except perhaps as a separate add-on that retains the current family and employer-sponsored immigration system. “Evidence indicates that America’s separation of executive and legislative powers makes it unlikely that a point system could operate effectively or in a manner similar to those in Canada or Australia, which have parliamentary systems of government and agencies with the authority to make rapid and unilateral changes to a point system when problems arise,” according to the report.
“That would not be possible under our laws and structure. Moreover, under a point system, as envisioned, U.S. employers would no longer decide which employees are most valued. Instead, admissions would be subject to government-designed criteria.” The report noted awarding points based on highest level of education would ignore the need for workers across the skill spectrum, such as in construction and hospitality or caregivers for seniors.
While Canada’s structure allows for relatively quick adjustments in point criteria, that is unlikely to happen in the United States. Instead, Congress would pass a law and set qualifications that might not change for decades. Ceding greater authority to an immigration bureaucracy would be unlikely to work, since it can take many years for a federal agency to enact a regulation and enact changes.
There is another risk to further empowering an immigration agency, the report and other analyses noted. White House adviser Stephen Miller showed how it was possible for the executive branch to use administrative means to prevent the admission of legal immigrants. After that experience, many would ask if it was wise to hand over even more authority to the executive branch to administer the U.S. immigration system.
Second, in Australia, the point system is largely irrelevant to employers, which has an employment-based immigration system similar to current U.S. law. “The point system is not at all important for corporate immigration in Australia,” said Tim Denney, formerly an attorney with Berry Appleman & Leiden in Sydney, Australia. “The points system comes into play when an individual seeks to migrate to Australia and does not have a business operating in Australia willing to sponsor him or her upfront for either a temporary work visa or permanent residence.”
In Canada, (permanent) immigrants for employers often first work for Canadian employers on temporary visas, similar to the U.S. transition from H-1B status to an employment-based green card. The difference is that Canada awards points for age, language, schooling and work experience in Canada and grants permanent residence each year to those who achieve sufficient points. The system has evolved and been adjusted so that employers can retain highly skilled employees. Another key feature: Canada allows provinces to select immigrants based on unique regional needs, something U.S. point system advocates generally have not favored.
Finally, if members of Congress wanted to admit more immigrants with advanced degrees, they could have supported several proposals in 2021 and 2022 to boost the number of employment-based green cards and eliminate the per-country limit on such green cards to prevent decades-long delays for Indian immigrants.
Neither Tom Cotton nor any other Republican senator intervened before the CHIPS Act passed in 2022 to stop Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) from blocking measures to create an exemption to annual green card limits for foreign nationals with a Ph.D. in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] fields and those with a master’s degree “in a critical industry.”
“The U.S. already has ‘merit-based’ immigration, in the form of a preference system for employment-based visas,” said Lynn Shotwell, an immigration expert and president/CEO of Worldwide ERC. “While current H-1B and green card numbers aren’t sufficient, employers don’t want a system that removes or limits their ability to hire or sponsor a specific individual, across the skill spectrum, or have the federal government set up a point criteria that may not be relevant to employer needs or keep up with changes in the economy.”
Sen. Cotton has argued that eliminating most family categories via the RAISE Act would raise worker wages. Economists would find this implausible. Giovanni Peri, economics chair at the University of California, Davis, concluded, “Decades of research have provided little support for the claim that immigrants depress wages by competing with native workers.”
Only about 25,000 or fewer people of working age with less than a high school degree immigrate annually in the categories critics have sought to eliminate (i.e., the siblings and unmarried and married adult children of U.S. citizens). Even if the consensus of economists was incorrect about immigrants’ lack of impact on native wages, it is not plausible that stopping 0.01% (25,000) of the 165 million U.S. labor force from entering the country—and living in different parts of the country—would have any impact on U.S. workers’ wages.
A higher annual level of immigration—four times higher than the United States as a percentage of its population—is a central feature of Canada’s immigration system. Analysts would find it unlikely that Sen. Cotton and other U.S. advocates of a Canadian-style point system will support admitting four times as many immigrants each year to the United States.