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Trump Looks to Australia in Overhauling Immigration System

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As President Trump embraces a proposal to sharply cut immigration to the United States, supporters of the plan point to the example of Australia and its “merit-based” system for approving new immigrants.

The plan Mr. Trump supports seeks to reduce immigration by curbing the ability of American citizens and legal residents to bring family members into the country. As Mr. Trump told Congress earlier this year, “It is a basic principle that those seeking to enter a country ought to be able to support themselves financially.”

That approach — making sure new immigrants are not a burden on the country’s safety net and are able to prosper financially — is at the core of Australia’s immigration laws.

Australia takes in more immigrants relative to its population than the United States. The country has two distinct systems: a points-based system, which favors people based on their English proficiency and the skills they have to fill needed jobs, and an employer-nomination system, which allows businesses to sponsor people for jobs.

A White House official said on Wednesday that it had looked at both the Australian and Canadian immigration systems and “added things that made sense for America.”

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“One of the things I think is the most compelling about the Australian system is the efforts to make sure that immigrants are financially self-sufficient,” Stephen Miller, a senior White House aide, said in discussing the plan with reporters Wednesday.

Under the plan proposed by Republican senators, applicants for legal residency in the United States would be judged on the basis of education, language and job abilities, favoring those who can speak English. They would be able to financially support themselves and have skills that contribute to the economy. Currently, most legal immigrants are admitted to the United States based on family ties to those already in the country.

“We are establishing a new entry system that’s points-based,” Mr. Miller said in explaining the Trump administration’s approach. “Can they support themselves and their families financially? Do they have a skill that will add to the U.S. economy? Are they being paid a high wage?”

Under the Australian system, applicants get the most points — up to 60 — for having skills in needed areas, and fewer points — up to 20 — for fluency in English. They are also awarded points for their age group, with the 25-to-32 age range being most desirable, and older people being less so. Applicants get up to 20 points for having a doctorate from an Australian educational institution or its equivalent.

While the program seeks to attract immigrants to fill occupations in areas where needed skills are in short supply, some experts believe the approach has been largely ineffective.

Australia has this image internationally that our points-tested skill program is delivering a high quality, skilled work force,” said Bob Birrell, president of the Australian Population Research Institute. “I think that’s a myth. Our points-selected skilled migration program is full of holes.”

Rather than favor people from overseas who have significant work experience and skills considered important in Australia, the points system has been watered down to favor foreigners who have recently graduated from Australian universities, Mr. Birrell said.

“There’s no assessment as to whether the skills that the applicant possesses are actually in demand here,” Mr. Birrell continued.

The program has also been criticized as overly complex in its skills criteria and as inherently favoring white applicants because of its language and educational requirements.

In promoting its approach Wednesday, the Trump administration also cited Canada, which similarly uses a points-based immigration system. Canada’s approach, however, does not merely favor immigrants based on their skills but also uses a system that promotes a multicultural society.

Like the United StatesAustralia has been very welcoming of immigrants, with roughly 27 percent of its population foreign-born, coming from more than 200 countries. It formalized the points-based system in 1989 and has updated it several times, most recently in 2011.

Khanh Hoang, a lecturer at the College of Law at Australian National University, wrote last year in The Conversation that Australia’s points-based system failed to capture the nuances needed for hiring the best and most desirable employees for key jobs.

“Some suggest a points test is a crude measure that does not account for ‘soft’ attributes desired by employers such as communications skills, the ability to learn on the job, or resilience,” he wrote, adding that the system may not be nimble enough to adjust to the country’s employment needs.

“This raises questions as to the government’s ability to accurately project shortages in the labor market, leading to underemployment or over-employment in some areas,” he wrote.

In April, Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, proposed raising more barriers to citizenship, with an “Australian values” test and a four-year wait for applicants.

The proposal came as he faced domestic pressure on the immigration front, with Pauline Hanson, a senator who has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, tapping into the frustrations of voters who believe they are competing with immigrants for jobs or government resources.

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