Monday, May 21, 2007

DAVID BROOKS: America’s Admissions System

Harvard is tough to get into. To be admitted to a school like that, students spend years earning good grades, doing community service and working hard to demonstrate their skills. The system has its excesses, but over all it’s good for Harvard and it’s good for the students beginning their climb to opportunity.

The United States is the Harvard of the world. Millions long to get in. Yet has this country set up an admissions system that encourages hard work, responsibility and competition? No. Under our current immigration system, most people get into the U.S. through criminality, nepotism or luck. The current system does almost nothing to encourage good behavior or maximize the nation’s supply of human capital.

Which is why the immigration deal reached in the Senate last week is, on balance, a good thing. It creates a new set of incentives for immigrants and potential immigrants. It encourages good behavior, in the manner of a demanding (though overly harsh) admissions officer. It rewards the bourgeois virtues that have always been at the heart of this nation’s immigrant success, and goes some way to assure that the people who possess these virtues can become U.S. citizens.

Let’s look at how this bill would improve incentives almost every step of the way.

First, consider the 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here. They now have an incentive to think only in the short term. They have little reason to invest for the future because their presence here could be taken away.

This bill would encourage them to think in the long term. To stay, they would have to embark on a long, 13-year process. They’d have to obey the law, learn English and save money (to pay the stiff fines). Suddenly, these people would be lifted from an underclass environment — semi-separate from mainstream society — and shifted into a middle-class environment, enmeshed within the normal rules and laws that the rest of us live by. This would be the biggest values-shift since welfare reform.

Second, consider the millions living abroad who dream of coming to the U.S. Currently, they have an incentive to find someone who can smuggle them in, and if they get caught they have an incentive to try and try again.

The Senate bill reduces that incentive for lawlessness. If you think it is light on enforcement, read the thing. It would not only beef up enforcement on the border, but would also create an electronic worker registry. People who overstay their welcome could forfeit their chance of being regularized forever.

Moreover, aspiring immigrants would learn, from an early age, what sort of person the U.S. is looking for. In a break from the current system, this bill awards visas on a merit-based points system that rewards education, English proficiency, agricultural work experience, home ownership and other traits. Potential immigrants would understand that the U.S. is looking for people who can be self-sufficient from the start, and they’d mold themselves to demonstrate that ability.

Third, consider the people who are admitted to the U.S. under the bill’s guest-worker program. By forcing these workers to spend a year away after two years of work here, this section encourages them to think of the U.S. as a place to earn some money before building their long-term futures back home. It encourages these young workers to be as flexible as possible, to go wherever the jobs are, so they can maximize earnings during each two-year window.

Nobody can like all aspects of this compromise bill. It has needless complexities and touchback mechanisms. The guest-worker part threatens to set up a permanent and un-American divide between temporary and skilled workers. But, over all, this bill finally gives this meritocratic nation a meritocratic immigration system.

Personally, I’d like to see it go farther. I’d prefer a system in which potential immigrants were admitted on an audition basis. An engineer from China who ran a neighborhood association would get citizenship. A construction worker from Mexico who was promoted to crew chief would get citizenship. This would be a system that rewarded hard work and perseverance as much as it rewarded I.Q. and advanced degrees. People who qualified could bring their nuclear families with them, since families are the foundries of responsible behavior.

In the meantime, this bill is a step. Despite its ramshackle and unforgiving nature, there’s still a little of the spirit of Ben Franklin flickering inside. There is still enough encouragement for the ambitious young striver, desperate to make good.

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