Opinion: Columnists

Manhattan Moment: Make immigration reform local with regional visas


Adapted from City Journal, Spring 2013

"We've lost our way, and we need to go back to fundamentals and say we're the place that welcomes everyone," said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder last March as the immigration debate in Washington heated up. "That's how you lead the world."

Gov. Snyder is right to suggest that the United States would benefit from additional immigration, and he's in a good position to decide where some of the would-be migrants end up.

When it comes to matching the skills of newcomers with the needs of local economies, state and local governments are in a far better position than Washington. Congress should consider a more federalist approach to immigration policy.

To that end, the federal government could let states sponsor regional visas. Like H-1B employment visas, regional visas would last three years and could be extended to six.

The visas would be "dual-intent," meaning that holders could apply for permanent residency (and eventually citizenship). The states would sponsor these visas according to their own economic needs, reserving the right to require visa holders to live in specific cities or regions.

Visa holders would have to find full-time employment and remain in good standing under American law. They would be free to bring dependents for the duration of their time in the United States.

The promise of a path to citizenship would make the regional restriction almost entirely self-enforcing: Few visa holders would risk losing their citizenship opportunity by moving to another region.

States might also encourage compliance by requiring every regional visa holder to purchase a primary residence. A home-purchase condition could be particularly useful in regions or cities, such as Detroit, that are experiencing net outmigration and have large inventories of vacant homes.

A regional visa with a home-purchase requirement would bear some resemblance to the EB-5 visa, which offers immediate residency and green cards to wealthy international businesspeople who invest at least $1,000,000 in an American company (or at least $500,000 in certain distressed areas).

Though the home-purchase condition would require a much smaller investment, it would not crowd out EB-5 investment. The EB-5 visa provides permanent residency immediately, while region-based visa holders would receive a green card only after the standard (and rather lengthy) application process.

Regional visas would offer substantial improvements over employment-based visas, such as the H-1B visa for specialty occupations and the H-2A visa for temporary agricultural workers.

These visas tie the holder to a single employer, restricting who they can work for and effectively limiting where they can live. Regional visas, by contrast, would allow visa holders to seek opportunities throughout regional labor markets, making those markets more efficient.

Because visa holders would be part of an integrated regional labor market, firms would not be able to hire immigrants at below-market wages in lieu of paying domestic workers market rates.

The visas also would enhance the quality and depth of states' labor pools, which would, in turn, attract businesses, generate jobs and economic growth and expand the local tax base.

And though the visas would offer a hand up to economically struggling regions, they would also give local governments an incentive to make communities safe, economically dynamic and well-governed -- and thus better able to attract and retain visa holders on track for permanent residency.

Region-based visas would match the skills of additional immigrants to the regions that want them most. A federalist approach of this sort has worked elsewhere. Under Canada's successful Provincial Nominee Program, for instance, the provinces, not the federal government, determine which immigrants to admit.

It's time for the United States to follow suit. Michigan understands its needs better than Washington does. Let's allow it and other states to determine how much extra immigration they want.

Brandon Fuller is a research scholar and deputy director at the NYU Stern Urbanization Project. Sean Rust is a law and public policy scholar at Temple University's Beasley School of Law.

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