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Aug 03, 2023 | Nancy Chen

Merit Based Immigration: How Many Points Do You Have?

This article explains what the merit-based immigration system introduced by Trump to the U.S. is, what happened to the bill, and its controversies.

Merit based immigration, also known as point based immigration, is a pathway through which foreign nationals are granted entry to a country based on their skill sets. Countries including the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have already adopted this immigration system, in addition to other immigration pathways such as humanitarian concerns, family relationships and other types of employment-based immigration. 

Former President Donald Trump pushed for the introduction of merit based immigration through the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment Act (RAISE Act) in 2017, but the bill did not advance. 

-> This article is part of Documented’s Glossary. We want to make it easier to understand the U.S. immigration system. If you want to know more about different visa types and immigration terms, please check our library here.

-> To find useful information for immigrants, such as where to find free food or legal representation, check out our master resource guide.

What is merit based immigration?

Applicants through merit based immigration systems are usually given a point value according to their age, education, occupation and language ability, a list of characteristics a country values, explained by the American Immigration Council. The host country sets the total number of points one needs before entering that country.

Canada and Australia were the first to adopt this system and became models for countries moving toward merit based immigration.

Trump was not the first one trying to introduce merit-based immigration to the United States. The Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 both proposed points systems based on one’s education level, skills, employment and other factors. But this type of immigration system received criticism as it favored skilled immigrants at the expense of less-skilled ones


The RAISE Act caps the total number of points based immigrant visas to 140,000 per fiscal year, which equals the number currently allocated for employment-based visas

Spouses and minor children of the principal applicant would count against the cap. If the spouse is accompanying or following to join the applicant in the US through a points based immigrant visa, the applicant needs to count the points that his or her spouse would accrue. The applicant’s points accrued would be adjusted if his or her spouse’s accrued were lower than the applicant’s.

The point allocations of the merit based system are listed below. 

Worldwide: cap of 140,000 for each fiscal year (including spouses and children)Point Allocation
Age (10 points maximum)
0–17May not submit an application
18–216 points
22–258 points
26–3010 points
31–358 points
36–406 points
41–454 points
46–502 points
51 or older0 points
Formal education (13 points maximum)
U.S. or Foreign High School Degree1 point
Foreign bachelor’s degree5 points
U.S. Bachelor’s Degree6 points
Foreign master’s degree in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (STEM)7 points
U.S. STEM Master’s Degree8 points
Foreign Professional Degree or Doctoral STEM10 points
U.S. Professional Degree or Doctoral STEM13 points
English language proficiency test score (12 points maximum)
1st–5th deciles0 points
6th–7th deciles6 points
8th decile10 points
9th decile11 points
10th decile12 points
Extraordinary achievement (40 points maximum)
Nobel Laureate or comparable recognition25 points
Individual Olympic medal or first place in a comparable international sporting event15 points
Job offer/highly compensated employment (13 points maximum)
Annual salary offered is at least 150% but less than 200% of the median household income in the state of employment5 points
Annual salary offered is at least 200% but less than 300% of the median household income in the state of employment8 points
Annual salary offered is at least 300% of the median household income in the state of employment13 points
Note: An applicant may not be placed in the eligible applicant pool if he or she has not received a degree higher than a bachelor’s degree and does not accrue any points under the job offer/highly compensated employment section.

Note: Professional degrees include Master’s of Business Administration, Doctor of Jurisprudence and Doctor of Medicine.

The implications and criticisms

If adopted, the merit based immigration system put forward through the RAISE Act symbols a departure from the current demand-driven model of employment-based immigration. It will cut legal immigration to half in a decade with the purpose of restoring the U.S. competitive edge in the 21st century, as Trump put it.

However, the plan has received various criticisms. First, like the Acts in 2007 and 2013 mentioned previously in the article, the RAISE Act also favors highly skilled immigrants at the expense of less-skilled immigrants, the American Immigration Council said in an article. But less-skilled immigrants are crucial in the essential economy, including construction, manufacturing, hospitality, agriculture and other industries. The RAISE Act could be detrimental to these industries

Second, based on the empirical evidence from countries with existing point-based immigration systems, there is no guarantee that selective migration strategies can achieve the goal of increasing national economic competitiveness, Rey Koslowski, the Director of the Master of International Affairs Program at University at Albany, said in his paper. Immigrants are often unable to secure or maintain employment in their profession or, if they did, not at a level that fully takes advantage of their talents. Experts also doubt restricting immigration can increase the wage for Americans as purported by the Trump administration. In fact, a study by the University of Pennsylvania projects that it will lead to more job losses and less economic growth in the long run.

Third, the merit based immigration system is likely to have gender and nationality biases, according to the American Immigration Council. For example, traditionally underrepresented in the STEM field, women are likely to be further disadvantaged. 

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