But what if that Chinese programmer who wasn’t lucky enough to get an H1B were willing to take a job somewhere else—say, in Baltimore—if it meant getting to stay in the United States? Wouldn’t it better for all involved if the state of Maryland could sponsor him for a visa, thereby gaining a valuable new resident and saving him from having to move back home? That’s the insight at the heart of the regional visa proposal: If state and local officials could sponsor the people they want living and working in their communities, we would have a system more finely tuned to the country’s needs.
The idea has recently been proposed in several blogs and and policy publications. In City Journal, a quarterly put out by a conservative think tank called the Manhattan Institute, Brandon Fuller of the Urbanization Project at the NYU Stern School of Business and Sean Rust, a graduate of the Temple University Beasley School of Law, proposed a system in which immigrants entering through a regional visa program would be required to purchase a home in the state that sponsored them. And Adam Ozimek, who has argued for the regional visa program on his blog at Forbes.com, suggests the visas could be auctioned off to the foreigners who want them most or distributed based on a state-specific points system that would reward people with certain skills. Utah, for instance, could give extra points to hospitality workers, because there’s a labor shortage in the service industry there.
Regional immigration programs have sprung up in several countries, including Australia and Canada. In Canada, all 10 of the country’s provinces are allowed to nominate a certain number of people for visas every year, and to distribute them in ways that reflect the hiring priorities of local employers. In oil-rich Alberta, visa nominations are available to tradesmen, like pipe fitters, welders, plumbers, and rig workers; in Manitoba, immigration officials recently teamed with employers and other local leaders on a recruitment mission in southern Europe, where they looked for people who could work in business, transportation, aerospace, construction, and service. According to Daniel Hiebert, a professor at the University of British Columbia who specializes in immigration, the so-called Provincial Nominee Program helps spread newcomers more evenly around the country and provides a much-needed counterpoint to Canada’s federal immigration system, which has historically privileged education attainment over specific skills, bringing in people whose advanced degrees didn’t necessarily match employers’ real needs.
Although the notion of regional visas has not gotten much of a hearing in American policy circles so far, it has been floated by a few local leaders. Michael Bloomberg suggested during a forum in Boston last summer that the government should “assign” immigrants to cities like Detroit, where they’ll have the biggest economic impact, and reward them with citizenship after they’ve lived there for seven years. And last month, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder proposed setting aside some visas for people willing to move to cities that have suffered population decline. It would probably also enjoy support in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland, which have gone to great lengths to make themselves more attractive to immigrants, in the belief that bringing in people from abroad would create jobs and improve the local economy.
To see immigration the way it’s seen in these cities is to take a growth-first view that not everyone in America shares. But the majority of economists who have waded into the debate over immigration policy regard the idea that more immigrants mean more jobs as an empirical truth. “When immigrants move into an area, they’re not only producers, they’re also consumers, and they expand the economy,” said Ozimek. Even outside economics, research suggests that fears of immigration’s harms are overblown: One exhaustive study recently suggested that immigrants, even when poorer than the area average, tend to be associated with a decrease in crime. Not everyone in America may believe that immigration is changing their area for the better, but the benefit of a regional approach, its advocates say, is that not everybody has to see it that way.
“It might be the most sensible way to tailor this massive issue, which can have really different effects in different states and different regional economies,” said Steve Tobocman, the head of an economic development initiative called Global Detroit designed to serve as a “welcome mat” for immigrants.Continued...