High Skills versus Family-Based Immigration Policy: Complex Considerations, By Nicholas Zill     Print Email

High Skills versus Family-Based Immigration Policy: Complex Considerations.

By Nicholas Zill

In the current era of rapid demographic and technological change, and massive refugee flows, there has been much debate in European nations and in the US about immigration policies. One of the major points of contention is whether preferences should be given to would-be entrants on the basis of their high skills (merit-based immigration) or their family ties to individuals already residing in the country (family reunification). Advocates of merit-based immigration argue that it would help to ensure a robust economic and cultural future. It would do this, they argue, by raising fertility rates, bolstering the educational achievement of future generations of citizens, stimulating economic growth, and providing resources to help support elderly retirees.

Critics of merit-based entrance criteria question the very definition of merit. Should it be narrowly defined by the technological capabilities currently sought by large employers? Or should it be defined more broadly to include medical, legal, artistic, and entrepreneurial know-how? Critics also contend that merit-based immigration is merely a way for companies to pay less to get employees with skills they need.

Proponents of family reunification defend the policy on humanitarian grounds. They also argue that it helps to strengthen family life and preserve continuity in the ethnic, religious, and cultural makeup of existing communities.

The nature of the policy choice may be illuminated by examining the situation in the United States with respect to recent immigrants from two different countries: the Dominican Republic and India. The Dominican Republic is one of the two top countries whose emigrants have gained admittance to the US as a result of the current family reunification preference. (The other is Mexico.)  On the other hand, many recent emigrants from India are in the US as a result of their technological skills and a permanent resident visa program that allows US corporations to obtain “Green Cards” and eventual citizenship for foreign nationals with capabilities that the companies need and may not be able to obtain from the native labor pool.

The contrast presented here is admittedly an extreme one and assumes a more heavily employment-based policy than currently exists in the U.S.[i] Currently, two thirds of the 1.1 million permanent resident visas issued annually by the US are granted on the basis of family connections, whereas only 12% are employment based.[ii] Even if more emphasis was placed on employability of would-be entrants, it is unlikely that it would focus solely on filling high-tech job openings. Nonetheless, most policymakers and voters seem unaware of how dramatic the differences in the social and economic situations of different immigrant groups may be, and how these differences relate to the criteria by which they were admitted to the country. The implications of contrasting criteria should be considered when immigration policy is being reframed.

Educational Attainment of Dominican and Indian Immigrants

The US Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey (ACS) found a million persons living in the US who were born in the Dominican Republic and 2.4 million born in India. These numbers include both US citizens and non-citizens.

Their different paths to entry are evident from the relative educational attainments of the two groups.  Of adults 25 and older born in the Dominican Republic and living in the US, less than 15 percent had bachelor’s degrees or more, whereas, as shown in Figure 1, the same was true of nearly 78 percent of adults born in India. This was not only five times higher than the Dominican proportion; it was more than twice as high as the proportion of college graduates among US native-born, 32 percent.  At the other end of the educational spectrum, 35 percent of Dominican immigrant adults lacked a high school diploma, whereas the same was true of only 7 percent of Indian immigrants and 9 percent of native-born adults.

Figure 1. Proportions of persons 25 and older whose highest educational attainment is less than high school graduate or college graduate or more, among US residents born in the US, Dominican Republic, or India: US, 2016. Source: Author’s analysis of data from the 2016 American Community Survey, US Bureau of the Census. (Table S0201).

Relative Fertility of Immigrants and US Natives

Larger proportions of both Dominican and Indian households consisted of families with minor children than was the case among households headed by the native-born.[iii]   As shown in Figure 2, 48% of Indian households and 40% percent of Dominican households consisted of families with children, compared to only 26% of US native-born households.  This reflects the fact that immigrants generally tend to be younger, have more children, and have them at younger ages, than native-born adults.

These differences are important for the future size and composition of the US population. In the last decade, US fertility rates have fallen below replacement level, while the elderly population has grown and will continue to grow. Not only has the overall fertility rate declined, so have rates for all major racial and ethnic groups.[iv] During the decade 2007-2017, nearly one quarter of all births in the US were to foreign-born mothers;[v] whereas the foreign-born population comprised less than 14% of the total population.[vi] Thus, immigrant families are contributing proportionally more than natives to the makeup of the future population of the country.

Figure 2. Proportions of households that have own children under 18 years of age, among households formed by native-born adults and persons born in the Dominican Republic or India: US, 2016. Source: Author’s analysis of data from the 2016 American Community Survey, US Bureau of the Census. (Table S0201).

Expected Achievement of Native and Immigrant Children

How well will the children born to these immigrant groups do when they go to school and later, when they enter the labor force and are faced with the task of supporting themselves as adults? One of the strongest and most reliable predictors of student achievement in school is the educational attainment of their parents. This is the case even when family income and poverty status are controlled. For example, 8th grade students whose birth parents both had graduate degrees had average scores that were at the 82nd percentile on a composite measure of reading, math, and science achievement, whereas those whose birth parents were both high-school dropouts scored at the 28th percentile.[vii] Given the dramatic differences in adult educational attainment noted above, we can confidently predict that children born to Indian immigrants will do better in school, on average, than those born to Dominican immigrants and, indeed, those born to US native-born.

Another reliable predictor of student achievement is the family’s income level (which has a positive relationship with achievement) and poverty status (which has a negative relationship). As shown in Figure 3, the median 2015 household income of Indian households in the US was more than $115,000. This was three times the median income of Dominican households ($ 36,762), and nearly twice that of households headed by US natives ($ 58,400).

Relative Poverty and Public Assistance Rates

Furthermore, child poverty rates were five times higher in Dominican than in Indian families: 36 percent of Dominican children lived below the poverty line in 2015, compared to just 7 percent of Indian children and 19 percent of children in native-born families. Dominican households were also far more likely to be dependent on public assistance for their housing, nutrition, and health care needs.  For example, the proportion of Dominican households (including those without children) receiving Food Stamps in 2015 was more than ten times higher than the proportion for Indian households (41% versus 3%) and more than three times higher than native households (12%). Thus, the relative financial circumstances of their families also point to higher achievement by students from Indian families than students from Dominican families as well as those from families formed by native-born US citizens.

Figure 3. Median household income in 2015 of households formed by native-born adults and persons born in the Dominican Republic or India: US, 2016. Source: Author’s analysis of data from the 2016 American Community Survey, US Bureau of the Census. (Table S0201).

Presence of Both Parents in Households with Children

Another family factor that predicts student achievement and partly accounts for the differences in family income and children’s poverty status just noted is the presence or absence of both biological parents in the households where students reside. As shown in Figure 4, Dominican and Indian families with children differ dramatically in the extent they have two married parents present as opposed to only a mother without a husband.  Among Dominicans, there were nearly as many mother-only families (44%) as married-couple families (47%), whereas among Indians, the overwhelming majority of households with children (96%) had both parents present. A considerably smaller majority of native households with children (67%) were maintained by married-couple parents, while more than a quarter were mother-only families.

Figure 4. Parents present in households with children by parent’s country of birth: US, 2016. Source: Author’s analysis of data from the 2016 American Community Survey, US Bureau of the Census. (Table S0201).

This finding suggests that merit-based immigration may have the unexpected benefit of strengthening family life in the host country. This would be welcome in an era when many native-born adults with college educations are postponing or foregoing marriage and childbearing, especially in wealthier, developed nations.

Learning From The Evidence At Hand

The above comparisons are not meant to imply that no or few emigrants from the Dominican Republic (or other Caribbean of Central American countries) would meet merit-based criteria for admittance to the US or that most or all emigrants from India (or other Asian countries) would. Nor are they meant to suggest that all Indian immigrants have strong family values while no Dominican immigrants do. The figures cited above are averages; there is considerable individual variation within any national group of would-be entrants to the U.S. But the comparisons do suggest the direction of change that might be expected if family reunification preferences were curtailed and strong merit criteria were applied.

The decision about which would-be entrants to admit and on what grounds is ultimately up to elected officials. Their decisions will be swayed by many factors other than the future composition and well-being of their national populations. One would hope, however, that they would add these considerations to the balance.

Dr. Nicholas Zill is a research psychologist who has studied the effects of economic and social trends on the functioning of families and the well-being of children and adolescents. Prior to his retirement, he was a Vice President at Westat, a social science research organization in the Washington area, and head of its Child and Family Study Area. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and blog posts on child development and well-being and family functioning. 


[i] The limited scope of the current employment-related program is shown by the fact that Indians and other high-skill immigrant groups are encountering long waits and other difficulties in their efforts to enter the US legally or, for those already living and working in the country, to obtain visas that would enable them and their offspring to remain in the country indefinitely. See: “Green card backlog promises 50-year waits,” by Abigail Hausloaner. The Washington Post, December 18, 2019, p. A15. https://www.washingtonpost.com/immigration/the-employment-green-card-backlog-tops-800000-most-of-them-indian-a-solution-is-elusive/2019/12/17/55def1da-072f-11ea-8292-c46ee8cb3dce_story.html

[ii] The remaining permanent resident visas are issued to refugees (11%) or under a “diversity visa” program (5%) or other programs (6%). There is also a restriction that a single country may account for no more than 7% of the green cards issued annually. Hence, would-be entrants from countries with large numbers of applicants may wait for years for a visa. See: J.M. Krogstad & A. Gonzalez-Barrera. (May 17, 2019). Key facts about U.S. immigration policies and proposed changes. Factank: News In The Numbers. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/17/key-facts-about-u-s-immigration-policies-and-proposed-changes/

[iii] The 2016 ACS found 440 thousand households in the US that were headed by a woman or man born in the Dominican Republic, and 994 thousand headed by a person born in India. 

[iv] Between 2007 and 2017, the total fertility rate in the US fell from 2.12 to 1.77 live births per woman. Replacement level is 2.1 births per woman. In 2017, the total fertility rate for whites was 1.67; for blacks, 1.82; for Hispanics, 2.01; for Asians, 1.60; for American Indians and Alaska Natives, 1.70; and for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, 2.09. Author’s calculations from National Vital Statistics Reports issued in 2008 and 2018 by the National Center for Health Statistics, US Department of Health and Human Services.

[v] National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 67, No. 8, November 7, 2018. Table 11. National Center for Health Statistics, US Department of Health and Human Services.

[vi] 2016 American Community Survey. US Bureau of the Census, Table S0201.

[vii] This finding comes from the author’s analysis of data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey. See: Nicholas Zill, March 31, 2016. “Does The “Marriage of Equals” Exacerbate Educational Inequality?” Charlottesville, VA: Institute for Family Studies blog post. https://ifstudies.org/blog/does-the-marriage-of-equals-exacerbate-educational-inequality/