For now , implementing regional visas in the United States isn’t much more than a pipe dream: The idea won’t be part of the current immigration overhaul, if such a thing even passes. But in a recent report published by the Migration Policy Institute, “Thinking Regionally to Compete Globally,” Papademetriou suggests a way to stage a trial run: a pilot program in which the federal government would set aside a small number of visas in order to test the idea, without giving up any of its authority over the process.
“We’re opening up so much to additional immigration at all levels in the Senate bill that carving out a number of visas—10, 20,000 visas—and authorizing the federal government to reach an agreement [with a state], on a pilot basis, to see how this works, is a no brainer,” he said.
Even for supporters of immigration, a system that requires people to settle in a specific area can sound a little un-American: In a country that prizes freedom of choice, something just doesn’t feel right about telling people they can come over under the condition that they stay in one place. “We just don’t do that here,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in immigration policy. “If somebody moves somewhere, they are free to move anywhere they want, pretty much.”
But advocates of the regional approach argue that it would actually be an improvement over the existing system, in which work visas are tied to specific jobs, making people dependent on their employers.
“Under the current employment-based visa policy, you effectively limit where immigrants can live anyway,” said Rust.
Ozimek added in an e-mail, “There are often complaints of wage theft and abuse of H-2A agriculture workers because they are afraid to report the employers and risk getting sent home. Since regional visas only tie you to a region the potential for this is much lower.”
Then there’s the broader philosophical argument: that immigration policy is something a country must approach as one. But the patchwork of laws aimed at immigrants across the country—whether undocumented residents can get driver’s licenses, or whether police can ask for papers during routine stops—already betray the fact that the United States is anything but united when it comes to this issue. A regional visa program creates a path through the thicket by embracing the simple fact that, though there may be 50 states, when people move here, they’re only moving to one.
“What the voters of Arizona think is different than what the voters of Michigan think, and yet they both hold each other back from what they want to do,” said Rust. “The region-based visa is a way to balance these political economies.”
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail email@example.com.