Quote card by Opinion.

All but a few of the wealthiest countries have immigration guidelines that take into account the skills of potential immigrants. Such preferences are so normalized among the public that few would question them. While skill preferences seem great on a superficial level, they are deeply unfair and troublesome at the international level. This migration process transfers the few skilled workers from many developing countries to the few most developed countries, allowing the rich nations to get richer at the expense of everyone else.

Since the 1960s, rich countries have widely adopted skills-based immigration policies to replace policies based on race or nationality. While such changes have eliminated the most explicit forms of discrimination, immigration policies continue to discriminate along gender, ethnic and class lines.

According to the Canadian government’s department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, men were the majority (75%) of those granted employer-specific work permits in the period between June 2019 and March 31, 2020. The reason behind this is twofold. For one, women in “sending countries” usually lack equal access to education due to local gender inequalities. For another, “skill” as a concept is gendered; the type of work women do is often perceived as less skilled.

There may also be ethnic disparities in education access. For example, China and India, two of the world’s biggest “sending countries,” both suffer from great ethnic inequalities in education access.

Education, which is the most important factor in determining whether one is “skilled” or not, also reflects one’s economic background. Rich children have access to better educational opportunities and are therefore more likely to succeed at a higher level. Many rich countries also have explicit preferences for one’s economic status by offering “golden visas” to wealthy individuals.

While it is unrealistic to expect rich nations to fix the problems in the countries from which their immigrants originate, the blind acceptance of the status quo in these countries is tantamount to approving the existing injustice, one that barely aligns with the values of liberal democracies. 

Besides the blatant unfairness, skill preferences also lead to a devastating trend known as the “brain drain,” which hurts sending countries. Brain drain refers to the migration of highly educated and skilled individuals out of a country, resulting in a loss of human capital and the potential for economic growth. Africa loses around $2 billion annually from brain drain in the health sector alone. At the same time, more than one million people in Africa die every year due to a shortage of medical treatments.

From a utilitarian perspective, brain drain is almost certainly a bad reallocation of resources. A doctor in a low-income country could save way more lives compared to a doctor in a rich country, where medical resources are already comparatively sufficient. Brain drain has also stifled economic activity in poorer countries. Without a pool of professionals, it is impossible for low-income countries to catch up with wealthier countries, which further deepens international inequality.

Most people would consider education a public good; an educated populace benefits all members of society. It is for this reason that taxpayers fund public schools, from primary schools to universities. However, when educated people leave their home country to work somewhere else, they choose their own well-being and that of their family over all the taxpayers who have invested in their education. This essentially makes poorer countries subsidize the education of rich countries, for which they get little in return.

At an individual level, only allowing the skilled to immigrate is also philosophically dubious, if not indefensibly bad, from a utilitarian standpoint. In almost all countries, even those under the terror of war, those with skills are doing relatively well compared to other citizens. The chance to migrate to rich countries is, of course, a precious opportunity. Such opportunities should not be given to those who need them the least. This is even worse if we take into account that the departure of the well-off will make those who are suffering face even greater hardships. 

Admittedly, as many critics of my view would argue, skilled immigrants have helped rich countries like America a great deal. This is most definitely true. However, it is important to note that unskilled immigrants also contribute greatly to society. Secondly, such a view is the result of a tunnel-visioned view of policymaking. While America benefits, those nations that people leave to go to America are left severely deprived. Often, the sending nation’s limited taxpayer funds have raised the few highly talented individuals. For them to then leave for America not only stunts economic prosperity, but actively drains growth and discourages investment in self-made innovation. Rich countries directly benefit at the expense of the hard work of the many whose living standards are already low.

Some would also object to my view based on the ideal that freedom of migration is a basic human right. However, the ideas presented above have no relevance to the number of immigrants that countries should take in. In other words, removing skill preferences won’t change the number of admitted immigrants. Paradoxically, if freedom of migration is a basic human right (which I wholeheartedly agree with), then all humans should have the same extent of such freedom, regardless of whether they are skilled or not. 

Some may also point out that sending countries may stand to benefit in some ways from the brain drain. For example, immigrants working in rich countries often send money back home to their relatives and friends. Such acts, called remittances, have a positive impact on the economy. However, considering the fact that unskilled immigrants actually send back more compared to their skilled counterparts, this cannot justify skill preferences. Furthermore, skilled immigration creates reliance on both sending countries and rich countries. For example, America relies heavily on Filipino nurses; such reliance would put America’s health care system at risk if there were any major changes in the Filipino education system. Skilled immigration has also made some sending countries overly reliant on remittance income. In the Philippines, for instance, remittances comprise nearly 10% of the country’s GDP. It should be noted that the Philippines is only a major sending country because of the skill preferences set by rich countries.

What is the alternative policy, then? If rich countries will take the same number of immigrants, they should prioritize those who need help the most: those fleeing the horrors in Ukraine and Myanmar and those facing the worst economic hardships. Besides, rather than the discriminatory practice of skill prioritization, we should create equitable policies that take into account other countries’ economic developments, prioritize family reunification and create a lottery-like system to ensure this life-changing opportunity is equitable for all.

Ezra Tao is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at txr@umich.edu.