During the years of discussion and debate leading to the current drive to reform the U.S. immigration system, the experience of Canada has been held up as a model, especially in regard to its policies concerning high-skilled immigrants. For nearly 5 decades, Canada has admitted immigrants based on a points system—the world’s first—that gives the advantage to people with such characteristics as higher education and professional skills. With enough points, individuals can legally move to the country whether they have a promise of work. 

The United States, on the other hand, has generally tied skilled immigration to specific promises of employment. Many U.S. politicians have argued for introducing something like the Canadian system in the United States in order to meet a mythical shortage of technical skills. The "Gang of Eight" immigration bill now under consideration in the Senate moves in the direction of eliminating employment requirements for many immigrants who hold graduate degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. 

Canada, however, is now moving in the opposite direction, toward high-skilled immigration based on employment, according to the newsmagazine Maclean’s. "[N]ext year," says an article by Tamsin McMahon, based on an interview with Canada’s immigration minister Jason Kenney, the "government will scrap the decades-old points system in favour of something [Kenney] calls an 'expression of interest,' based on the skilled-worker systems in Australia and New Zealand. Instead of receiving points based on a mix of language skills, education and work experience, prospective immigrants will need to have their language skills and credentials assessed by an independent third-party service. If they pass, they’ll be put into a pool of people approved for immigration. Employers can browse lists of workers, and if they find an employee they want to hire they can apply to bring them over within a year."

The reason for the change? What Maclean’s calls "the ugly reality facing so many Canadian immigrants"—high unemployment, low earnings, disappointment, and frustration. According to Statistics Canada, the nation’s statistical agency, the article notes, about 80% of skilled immigrants who entered Canada from 2000 to 2007 were at least college graduates, but "[n]early half of chronically poor immigrants living in Canada are those who have come as skilled workers." Skilled immigrants often encounter great difficulty finding jobs, and many employers require prior work experience in Canada. This results, the article states, in cabdrivers with doctorates. "The declining economic welfare of immigrants is 'a huge problem,' " Kenney told Maclean’s. He continued, "It’s impossible to calculate the opportunity cost of productivity, the cost to our economy, represented by the unemployment and underemployment of immigrants."

Indeed, writes political scientist Gary Freeman of the University of Texas, Austin, in a paper presented at the 2012 Mortimer Caplin Conference on the World Economy held in Washington, D.C., in December, "[P]rograms that do not link admissions to the promise of a job end up with too many unemployed or under-placed skilled immigrants. … [E]xperiments with broad efforts to recruit skills without regard for domestic demand, as with Canada, have on the whole not been satisfactory." 

Many experts have predicted that the changes to high-skilled STEM immigration policies in the United States as now proposed in the Senate bill will damage the career prospects of American STEM workers. The Canadian experience appears to suggest that they may be harmful to many immigrants as well.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300086