Penn Presidential Professor of Practice Jeb Bush spoke on the benefits of a merit-based immigration system at a Penn Political Union debate Tuesday evening — and won.
The event was structured as a political debate between Bush, who argued that the United States should implement a merit-based system, and three students assigned to argue in opposition — College sophomore Tori Borlase, College freshman James Kuang, and College of Liberal and Professional Studies student Javier Cuadras.
During the debate, Bush argued that merit-based immigration policies are “a catalyst for sustained economic activity” because immigrants fill many high-skill roles in the workforce.
“It’s the American duty to bring the best and brightest to our country, let them pursue their dreams, and do so in a way that creates prosperity for all of us,” Bush said.
Bush also cited examples of countries that already follow merit-based immigration policies, such as Canada and Australia. He said America’s current system, which allows adult siblings and parents to petition to join family members in the United States, is outdated and is not followed by any other country in the world.
Throughout the event, audience members raised questions and shared their families’ personal experiences with immigration. One attendee argued that immigrants to the United States feel adrift in the country without their families.
“How do you justify weighing economic considerations over the experiences of immigrants?” they asked.
For the opposition, Cuadras argued that merit-based immigration policies discourage legal immigration and lead many to enter the country illegally. To combat the notion that these policies are economically effective, Cuadras cited examples of lower-income immigrants who have also advanced the economy, including Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Borlase also brought up a humanistic argument, adding that every individual should have the right to immigrate to the United States under basic American ideals.
Both sides discussed who benefits from merit-based immigration policies. The opposition argued that the term “merit” itself is difficult to define and is unequally applied to immigrants with higher educational achievement.
“Education measures knowledge, not intelligence, and certainly not emotional intelligence,” Kuang said.
In response to a question from the audience, Bush deflected criticisms that merit-based immigration policies favor certain racial groups.
“First of all, let’s blow up the myth that somehow the majority of people in [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields are white,” Bush said. “The history of the United States is that they are predominantly Asian and increasingly African and Latin American. That may fit the narrative that’s trying to be built here, that somehow this is a racist policy, but the reality is that it’s the exact opposite.”
PPU Speaker and College junior Sarah Root said the event took place in a “tense political climate” spurred by Penn’s decision to move conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza’s scheduled speech from the ARCH building due to security concerns. She added that PPU discussions aim to “start at a middle ground” when it comes to divisive political issues by focusing on less polarizing versions of the topics.
“If you start at a point where people would absolutely never agree — from an angle of high emotion and high intensity — you’re never going to get anywhere worthwhile,” Root said.
At the end of the event, the audience voted 24-14-1 to affirm the resolution that merit-based immigration should be adopted by the United States.
“In the last century, we’ve allowed immigration to become a political wedge issue,” Bush said. “We’re the only country in the world that can use immigration on a sustained basis as a basis for innovation, dynamism, and economic growth. What we have to get right is to take it out of a political context and realize the significant economic impact that it brings.”
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