Broken and Obsolete

An immigration deadlock makes the U.S. a second-rate nation

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

Sorry...We're Closed

As the American economy sags, the race for the presidency gets tighter--except in one dimension. Hispanic Americans continue to support Barack Obama by an astonishing 61%-to-27% margin. Were Obama to win, it might well be because of his attitudes on one issue: immigration. But it is an issue on which he will be unable to enact any of his preferences, let alone those policies that many Latinos support. The Republican Party has taken a tough stand on the topic. Democrats have their own bright lines. That means America's immigration system is likely to stay as it is right now--utterly broken.

We think of ourselves as the world's great immigrant society, and of course, for most of the country's history, that has been true. But something fascinating has happened over the past two decades. Other countries have been transforming themselves into immigrant societies, adopting many of America's best ideas and even improving on them. The result: the U.S. is not as exceptional as it once was, and its immigration advantage is lessening.

Would you have guessed that Canada and Australia both have a higher percentage of foreign-born citizens than the U.S.? In fact, in this respect, America--which once led the world--increasingly looks like many other Western countries. France, Germany and the U.K. have only slightly fewer foreign-born residents than America (as a percentage of the population). And some of these countries have managed to take in immigrants mostly based on their skills, giving a big boost to their economies.

Canadian immigration policy is now centered on recruiting talented immigrants with abilities the country needs. Those individuals can apply for work visas themselves; they don't even need to have an employer. The Canadian government awards points toward the visa, with extra points for science education, technical skills and work experience.

The results of the system are evident in Vancouver, where American high-technology companies like Microsoft have large research laboratories and offices. The people working in these offices are almost all foreign graduates of American universities who could not get work visas in the U.S. They moved a few hours north to Vancouver, where they live in a city much like those on the American West Coast. Except, of course, that they will pay taxes, file patents, make inventions and hire people in Canada.

Sixty-two percent of permanent-resident visas in Canada are based on skills, while the remainder are for family unification. In the U.S., the situation is almost exactly the reverse: two-thirds of America's immigrants enter through family unification, while only 13% of green cards are granted because of talent, merit and work. And it's actually gotten worse over time. The cap on applications for H1-B visas (for highly skilled immigrants) has dropped in half over the past decade.

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