The Moral Quandary of Merit-Based Immigration

By Jay Richards Published on January 24, 2018

When it comes to immigration policy, there’s far too much moral preening, and far too little honest debate. Among Christians, bromides and proof texting too often replace real argument.

There are a few clear truths on the subject:

  1. If countries have a right to exist, they have a right to borders.
  2. Countries have a right to decide whom they let into their country, and to whom they grant citizenship.
  3. Elected officials’ main responsibility is for the well-being of their own citizens.
  4. People should be free to move to places with greater freedom and opportunity.

Sane and just immigration policy must balance these competing truths.

Beyond these truisms, though, things get complicated, both politically and morally.

Merit-Based Immigration?

Take merit-based immigration. President Trump and Jeff Sessions support it, as do tech billionaires such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. It’s supposed to replace a bad policy: a random diversity lottery plus “chain migration.” That’s where distant relatives of immigrants can come here just because they’re distant relatives.

If we turn to a merit-based system instead, we would select immigrants based on their knowledge, skills, pluck, resolve and (let’s hope) desire to be good citizens.

This policy would have a short-term cost: competition for labor among other highly skilled Americans. It’s just supply and demand: Assume everything else stays the same. If there’s a sudden spike in the supply of labor for, say, computer coding, and the same demand, then that will depress wages for that labor.

But everything else doesn’t stay the same. Not only will such people create more wealth and more jobs. They’ll likely be richer than they were before, and so will buy more goods and services.

Would we be poorer if we welcomed a few more Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Thomas Edisons from India, the Phillipines, or Nigeria?

Of course not. The long term economic benefit to the US from high-skilled, assimilated, non-jihadi immigrants is bound to outweigh the costs.

What’s more, since the president and Congress should seek the common good and well-being of Americans, they’re right to pursue this policy. Just as the leaders of Australia and Canada do for their countries.

As Jeff Sessions puts it in a recent commentary:

It’s a commonsense idea. After all, employers don’t roll dice when deciding who they want to hire. Our incredible military doesn’t draw straws when deciding whom to accept. But for some reason, when we’re picking new Americans — the future of this country — our government uses a randomized lottery system and chain migration.


But think about this plan from the perspective of the countries of origin. Every country has people who are smarter, more dogged and more enterprising than others. Yes, everyone can learn new skills and serve others. But great entrepreneurs are rare.

Moreover, some countries really are basket cases (President Trump’s reportedly vulgar way of making this point doesn’t make it less true). If you doubt that, check out Karin McQuillan’s piece about her stint in Senegal with the Peace Corps. Some cultures encourage graft and nepotism and discourage enterprise and fair-dealing.

If, say, Senegal has a potential Thomas Edison, one of his main goals is probably to move someplace else. His culture restricts his chances to create wealth for himself and others. He’d be better off if he emigrated to the US, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, etc. But what about Senegal itself? Would it be better off in the long run if its best and brightest flee to greener pastures?

Imagine that every rich country pursues merit-based immigration for the next twenty years. They hoover up the most promising members of the less-developed countries and keep out the unskilled, tired, poor and huddled masses. What happens to the countries on the depleting end of these brain-drains? What happens to their desperately poor who can’t navigate the immigration maze? Is there a chance for real reforms at home when would-be reformers have moved to Vancouver and Menlo Park?

It’s hard to see how.

Conflicting Incentives

It’s also doubtful that such countries would like such a policy. Senegal’s leaders would want to offload their ingrates and scofflaws, and keep their doctors and computer engineers. Remember, much of the immigration to the US and Australia in previous centuries was not a brain-drain. The first Western immigrants to Australia were convicts from overcrowded British prisons!

The basic incentives of the leaders in various countries conflict with each other. Whether you’re the president of the US or of Senegal, you’ll want to welcome and keep people who make your country great, and nudge and keep out those who do not.

What’s More Just?

Now, ask yourself this: Which, of the following two policies, is more just?

(1) Bringing in the best and brightest immigrants from other countries, who would benefit us and themselves.

(2) Welcoming their countries of origin into widening circles of trade.

That is, should we help promising individuals and ourselves by opening our doors? Or should we trade with their countries from a distance, in hopes that their best and brightest will improve their home countries later on?

Roy Beck, an immigration hawk, argued in his viral 2010 video that we should try to help them where they are, not bring them here. Is he wrong? I’m not sure. And that’s my point. Immigration policy is morally complex. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

Jay Richards is the Executive Editor of The Stream and an Assistant Research Professor in the Busch School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America. Follow him on Twitter.


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