Canada is known for world-class ski slopes, polite manners and the world’s finest maple syrup, though President Trump is most envious of its immigration system, which uses a point-based system to pick most of its newcomers.

Mr. Trump, laying out his own vision for a U.S. legal immigration overhaul, name-checked the northern neighbor three times Thursday, saying they’ve figured out a way to draw talented immigrants while the U.S. lags behind, with just 12% of its inflow based on skill.

Countries like Canada, which pioneered points-based immigration in 1967, and Australia, which followed suit within several years, typically peg more than half of their immigrant pool to job opportunities or skills.

Indeed it’s the U.S. that’s the outlier, with family ties and humanitarian immigrants accounting for the vast majority of new Americans.

“If you look at most of the developed world they have systems that, if not point-based, look at migrants’ economic contributions,” said Theresa Cardinal Brown, director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We are unusual among developed countries in that so little of our annual migration flow is based on economic criteria.”

As a result, countries like Canada and Australia have drawn an immigrant pool whose educational attainment is equal to or exceeds that of the native-born, according to Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Services.

Meanwhile in the U.S., while the gap has been closing, the immigrant population is still more than twice as likely to have failed to complete high school.

“Point systems have their critics and it depends on how the system is constructed, but in general this approach produces a more educated flow of new arrivals,” Mr. Camarota said. “The advantage is that immigrants selected in this way tend to need fewer social services and are less likely to compete for jobs with the native-born poor at the bottom of the labor market.”

That’s exactly what Mr. Trump wants, saying as it stands, the majority of newcomers are hurting poor Americans who are already here.

The Trump plan would increase skills-based immigration in the U.S. from 12% to 57%, and “we’d like to even see if we can go higher,” the president said from the White House Rose Garden, where he outlined a broad immigration plan.

“In countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand — and others — that number is closer to 60 and even 70 and 75% in some cases,” he said.

Point-based systems have had their stumbles.

The Law Library of Congress in 2013 said the British system relied on employers to notify authorities if the immigrant stops working.

“Illegal immigration does remain a problem in the U.K., and the difficulty in determining an exact number of illegal immigrants present is exacerbated by the lack of exit controls,” researchers reported at the time.

Canada, meanwhile, found that highly skilled persons often arrived and couldn’t land positions in their field.

“The trope of an engineer or doctor driving a cab is very prevalent,” said Ms. Brown, who worked for the Department of Homeland Security in the Bush and Obama administrations and specialized in U.S.-Canada relations.

In 2015 Canada started to pay more attention to employers’ needs in selecting immigrants, hoping to surmount problems of new arrivals struggling to earn professional licenses or facing language barriers, according to Michelle Mittelstadt, spokeswoman for the Migration Policy Institute.

“Flexibility is a central part of what makes the Canadian example a successful one. The U.S., by contrast, has had a remarkably rigid, archaic system,” she said.

She said the ability to periodically adjust the point system would strengthen any merit-based plan.

That could be a challenge in the U.S., where much of American immigration law is set in statute, as opposed to a more fluid system of points that can be fine-tuned, like turning a set of dials.

Other distinctions will depend on the details of final legislation.

Mr. Trump said his merit-based plan would still allow immediate families to immigrate, with spouses and children going to the “front of the line.”

Yet in firmly touting employment and skills over relatives and diversity, he appears to be taking a harder line than the countries he held up as shining examples.

“Canada admits more immigrants in an economic stream, but per capita they admit more family members, in part because they give points in their system for having family in Canada,” Ms. Brown said. “They also have a much bigger humanitarian system.”

Part of that difference can be explained by the countries’ populations. While the U.S. calls its immigration quotas “caps,” the Canadians — who need more people — speak of “targets.”

“Immigration for them is an existential necessity,” Ms. Brown said. “They’re trying to get more immigrants in to support the economy, to support the Canadian population.”

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