The United States already has merit-based immigration, Mason professors say

James Witte

What exactly did President Donald Trump mean when he called for a merit-based immigration policy?

“Merit-based generally refers to a system that chooses immigrants on the basis of their skills, education and other factors that have been determined by the government,” said James Witte, director of the Institute for Immigration Research at George Mason University.

But, he added, “It is inaccurate to say that the U.S. does not have a merit-based immigration system. Like many countries, the U.S. already has an immigration system that is a combination of merit-based and family-based.”

For example, Witte said, the government’s employment-based program allows employers to petition for foreign-born workers who have the skills and education level they require. In addition to workers in science, technology and engineering with highly specialized knowledge, and low skill temporary workers in agriculture, employment-based visas are issued to athletes and artists, as well as ministers and priests.

The diversity visa program also requires applicants to have a certain level of education and skill, and the family-based program requires immigrants to be closely related to a U.S. citizen or green card holder, said Michele Waslin, project coordinator for the Institute for Immigration Research.

Michele Waslin

“Many immigrants who come through the employment-based system are able to bring certain close relatives with them,” Waslin said. “This is one way in which we combine both types of immigration. That balance is important to making the U.S. a welcoming place.”

It is important to remember that immigrants who come through the family system are workers, consumers, homeowners, and taxpayers, and contribute to the economy, Waslin said. And research shows that immigrant families support one another and make each other more productive.

“Of course, the U.S. can decide to revisit the balance between employment- and family-based immigration,” she said. “But it is not an either-or choice.”

Michele Waslin can be reached at 703-993-5833 or

James Witte can be reached at 703-993-2993 or

For more information, contact Buzz McClain at 703-727-0230 or

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George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 36,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.