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Immigration at the State Level: An Examination of Proposed State-Based Visa Programs in the U.S.

Executive Summary

The federal government has sole authority to admit immigrants, to determine how many immigrants to admit, and to create criteria for admission. Our current immigration system does not address the needs of the 50 states, which are unique in terms of their populations, economies, and labor market needs. State governments have little ability to direct foreign workers to their state or to specific industries or regions within the state, leading them to express frustration with the current immigration system and Congress’ failure to reform it. As a result, some states and policy experts believe that devolving additional immigration decisions to the states is preferable because state governments are in a better position to understand the immigration needs of their own communities.

This paper analyzes the history of immigration federalism in the United States and examines how other countries have created regional immigration systems to address the needs of individual areas. It subsequently looks at the problems with the current immigration system and why it is insufficient to meet states’ needs. It then analyzes the multiple solutions that have been proposed. Finally, it looks at the remaining questions that must be addressed before moving forward with a new, state-based immigration program.

Key Findings

  • State legislators have expressed concerns that the current immigration system is not serving the needs of their economies, employers, and communities.
  • Legislators from many states have offered proposals intended to allow them to partner with the federal government and play a larger role in the distribution of workers within the country and within their states.
    • Since 2007, legislators in at least 16 states have introduced bills, resolutions, or other proposals related to obtaining additional immigrant workers, and four states have passed laws or resolutions.
  • Several Members of Congress have taken up the issue of state-based visas.
    • In 2017, the State-Sponsored Visa Pilot Program Act (S. 1040) was introduced by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI). Rep. John Curtis (R-UT) reintroduced the bill again in 2019 as H.R. 5174.
    • This bill would create a new W visa classification for foreign workers, and visa recipients would be distributed to participating states.
    • The number of W visas could be adjusted in subsequent years using a formula that would consider states’ economies as well as their compliance with the program.
    • Congress would set the general rules for the program, but states would have the freedom to create their own visa programs and requirements in a way that would be most beneficial.
  • Canada and Australia have already implemented regional immigration systems in which the national government works closely with the provincial, territorial, or regional governments to distribute foreign workers to the areas where they are most needed.
    • In Canada, these regional programs are mandated by the country’s constitution while Australian law tracks more closely with that of the United States.
    • In both countries, temporary foreign workers settle in particular regions of the country and may become permanent residents and work anywhere in the country after a period of time.
  • Several issues would need to be addressed in order to create a state-based visa program that is thoughtful, rational, and successful.
    • There will be many issues regarding the characteristics and size of the program as well as the nature of the authority delegated to the states.
    • Similarly, there are issues as to how states would measure their labor needs and design an immigration program that best suits their economies and populations.

As these examples show, the United States has the opportunity to write another chapter in immigration federalism and reform our immigration laws in a way that better serves states and localities. While immigration reform would encompass a range of changes to the federal employment-based system, Congress can legislate a larger immigration role for the states if it chooses to do so. A new law could reform the nation’s immigration system by expanding the role for state governments, allowing them to design a system that is tailored to their constituents’ needs and generates fiscal and economic gains for their communities.

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