During summer holidays, my brother and I would come home from our respective Catholic boarding schools and spend lazy days reading and exploring our neighborhood in the rural fringes of North-eastern India. This was in the 70s, and there was no television yet. We climbed trees, played imaginative games and developed an abiding curiosity in birds and insects. I recall one summer when the two of us spent a few hours each day chasing dragonflies. We got ourselves glass jars with holes hammered into the lids and captured dragonflies, holding them by their wings and dropping them into our jars and closing the lids on them. It was a contest and we were evenly matched. Once the sun set, we’d tally our dragonfly points.
But then one day, I changed the rules of the game. I began to look for the prettiest dragonflies: purples, greens, blues and iridescent ones. I didn’t want any of the drab brown and gray-colored ones even though they were within reach. And within a few days I had myself a striking set of captured dragonflies that I carried with me everywhere.
What I’d done to fill a glass jar as a child is somewhat similar to what President Trump plans to do to alter the makeup of America, with his merit-based legal immigration reform plan. Determined to construct a nearsighted prototype of a new, less diverse America, President Trump made a case to slash family-based legal immigration and the diversity visa lottery program.
“Random selection is contrary to American values and blocks out many qualified potential immigrants from around the world who have much to contribute,” Trump said at a press briefing in May. “Companies are moving offices to other countries because our immigration rules prevent them from retaining highly skilled, and, even if I might, totally brilliant people. We discriminate against genius. We discriminate against brilliance,” he said.
Of course, the logic in the President’s argument is glaringly faulty. Random selection doesn’t discriminate against genius, as much as offer opportunities to a wider global base, people of all intellectual abilities, hues, shapes and sizes. Random selection doesn’t explicitly reward smarts, but neither does it deter it.
“This dead-on-arrival plan is not a remotely serious proposal,” chided Speaker Nancy Pelosi, about Trump’s immigration proposal, since there were far too many harmful policies buried in it, including funding for the wall, and no mention of Dreamers. However, it’s far too soon to dismiss Trump’s merit-based immigration plan. This is not the last time we will be hearing of it.
To be fair, merit is difficult to argue against. In an attempt to model the Canadian and Australian point-based systems with the advantage going to English language speakers who have job experience and doctorate degrees, the Trump administration’s immigration proposal reallocates citizenship to those who have some defining meritocratic trait.
As Trump sees it, it’s the sheepskin holder, maybe a master’s, but more so a doctorate who deserves a shot at America. By this token, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Richard Branson would not qualify to be part of Trump’s America. Neither would Michael Faraday and Vincent van Gogh, and Albert Einstein would be iffy, since he failed French, chemistry and biology in the college entrance examinations.
In theory, increasing the number of educationally qualified immigrants seems to be an economically solid plan. At least one study (Kauffman Foundation) found that 95.1 percent of all businesses are started by those holding at least a bachelor’s degree and 47 percent with more advanced degrees.
However, getting a doctorate degree and speaking English require certain resources and privileges that many from non-white countries don’t have access to. And that’s how merit-based immigration can quickly become an exercise in social engineering.
Migration Policy research indicates that U.S. residents with relatives from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, China, India, and Vietnam are the most frequent sponsors of family-based green cards and people from these countries will be most likely to see their numbers dwindle if the merit-based immigration plan is put into effect.
Employment-based (including H-1B, a skills-based categorization) immigrants today are mostly from China, India, the Philippines, South Korea and the UK in that order. If the rules are changed, then English-speaking countries in Europe and perhaps once colonial countries like India and the Philippines would benefit.
With any kind of deterministic manipulation of the makeup of a population there are unforeseen consequences. We’ve seen how San Francisco came to be significantly reconstructed after the tech boom in the 90s with an influx of engineers, computer scientists and skilled tech workers replacing less tech savvy people, especially from some communities of color. The City’s new residents became younger, more educated and richer than those being forced out. Today, many of San Francisco’s complex and interconnected problems of housing and homelessness are an outcome of gentrified in-migrations.
As for my childhood experience chasing dragonflies, my brother won the contest handily each time once I began to pick and choose the beautifully colored insects, but I didn’t care. I had put together, what I considered, the most exquisite collection of living color. And then the exercise came to a swift end after I showed my father my glass jar ablaze with iridescent insects. Giving me a reproachful glance and subjecting me to a lecture on the imbalance of the natural world if we indulge our rapacious tendencies, he unscrewed the lid and persuaded the captured dragonflies to fly away freely. If only it were that simple to fix our immigration problem.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. This is an opinion column and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan