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Merit-based Versus Family-based Immigration Explained

FILE - U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., second from right, and Senator David Perdue, R-Ga., right, unveil legislation aimed at curbing legal immigration by halving the number of legal immigrants admitted into the United States, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Feb. 7, 2017.

President Donald Trump wants to abolish the U.S. diversity lottery, which he said was responsible for giving a visa to the 29-year-old Uzbek citizen suspected in Tuesday's attack in downtown Manhattan. The diversity lottery grants visas to people from countries that have low levels of immigration to the United States. Not only is the president calling on Congress to do away with it, but he is also calling for a whole new immigration system: merit-based as opposed to family-based.

What is the difference in these two systems?

Chain migration

Currently, the United States has a policy of what critics call "chain migration" and immigration advocates call "family-based immigration."

The U.S. immigration system is based on sponsorship. A U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident (green card holder) can sponsor relatives from his or her home country to move to the United States.

Spouses and minor children qualify as immediate relatives and do not need to wait for a visa number. For those individuals, there's no quota, and the U.S. citizen can simply file a petition.

But for brothers, sisters and adult children, the process can be long and difficult.

"It's extremely difficult … brothers and sisters are at the very end," said Naomi Tsu, Southern Poverty Law Center deputy legal director. It's especially hard if the would-be entrants live in countries where there are a lot of immigrants headed to the U.S.

"If you're talking about sponsoring your brother from the Philippines who is here undocumented for a year, you apply, wait for six to 12 months, let's say, for the paperwork to be approved," Tsu said. "Wait for another 20 years for the visa to become available, and he will have to go home, or go back to the Philippines, wait in the Philippines for an additional 10 years for the [immigration] bar to expire so he can enter [the U.S.]"

Stephen Lee, immigration and administrative law professor at the University of California-Irvine, told NPR there are also instances when a relative can be excluded.

"So, for example, if that person is a terrorist, they wouldn't be able to come to the United States whether or not they were your spouse," Lee said.

FILE - Natalie Pereira, center, queues to go through migration before her move to the U.S. with her family, after winning a green card lottery, at the Maiquetia airport in Caracas, Apr. 8, 2014.
FILE - Natalie Pereira, center, queues to go through migration before her move to the U.S. with her family, after winning a green card lottery, at the Maiquetia airport in Caracas, Apr. 8, 2014.

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute reports that in 2015, more than 1 million permanent residents were admitted to the U.S. Of that number, 44 percent were immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, and 20 percent entered through a family-sponsored preference. Only 14 percent entered on job-based visas.

Merit-based immigration

Merit-based immigration would reward points based on high-paying job offers, past achievements, English-language ability and education. All that would be taken into account when green card applications are considered.

"It gives points for different characteristics, which are age, the salary you able to command, and how much money you are going to invest in the U.S. economy," Tsu said.

The higher the score, the more likely an immigrant would be admitted to the United States.

"So, for example, if you get a Nobel Prize, you automatically get 20 points, and you need 30 points to be eligible to apply," Tsu said.

This system would be similar to merit-based immigration systems used by Canada and Australia.

Pros and cons

Proponents of merit-based immigration say the current system lowers wages and discourages assimilation.

A merit-based system would help lower immigration rates and ensure that the immigrants who do come are highly skilled and less likely to need public assistance.

"For decades, the United States was operated and has operated a very low-skill immigration system, issuing record numbers of green cards to low-wage immigrants," Trump said in August when announcing his support for the RAISE (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy) Act.

The bill, sponsored by Senators David Perdue of Georgia and Tom Cotton of Arkansas, both Republicans, aims to cut legal immigration from 1 million to 500,000 each year, in part, by moving to a merit-based system.

"This [family-based] policy has placed substantial pressure on American workers, taxpayers and community resources," Trump added.

But critics say the American economy also needs low-skilled workers, and a merit-based system would hurt industries that rely on them.

A merit-based system would also cost the government more because the government would have to review the applications and pay resettlement costs that are currently covered by sponsoring families.

Critics also see the merit-based system as un-American.

"Their proposal abandons the fundamental respect for family, at the heart of our faith, at the heart of who we are as Americans," House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said Wednesday.