The immigration bill just passed by the US Senate emerged from a long and difficult negotiation among legislators with very different ideas about how the country’s borders should work. Whenever Congress tinkers with immigration policy—and nearly everyone agrees our system needs a substantial overhaul—lawmakers from parts of America where immigrants are widely regarded as job-stealers must compromise with their colleagues from areas where they are welcomed with open arms.
But as the House of Representatives works on an immigration reform bill of its own, some thinkers are calling for a radically different approach—one they say could take some of the pressure off our elected officials to agree on a single way forward.
What they envision is a new class of “regional visas” that would open up additional slots for newcomers but limit them to specific destinations within the United States, while giving state and local officials a role in deciding how many immigrants—and which ones—to let in. Under this system, states that want to attract more foreign workers could do so, and perhaps even target people with the kinds of skills and training that local businesses are looking for. Meanwhile, states that don’t want to open the door to additional immigration could simply decline to participate.
“The idea is to accept that in a large country, local jurisdictions all have different needs, and they are highly specific,” said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan D.C. think tank. That being the case, he explained, the federal government ought to “find a way for these jurisdictions...to do [some of] their own recruitment.”
For people used to thinking of immigration policy as a national issue, both in terms of protecting our country’s borders and deciding who gets to cross them, the notion of localizing immigration may sound like pure lunacy. And so far, aside from an informal endorsement by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the regional visa idea hasn’t made political inroads in the United States. But a similar program has been successfully adopted in Canada, where officials in each province are allowed to nominate a certain number of new immigrants for visas every year.
In the United States, advocates of a regional visa program say it would harness a global supply to meet clear domestic needs. Millions of people around the world want to move to the United States, and many parts of the country—especially depopulated cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh—would love to welcome motivated new residents. Adding some immigration on a purely regional basis would loosen the restrictive system overseen by the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, the argument goes, without forcing more newcomers on less welcoming states like Arizona.
“Right now immigrants aren’t directed to areas where they’re necessarily needed the most,” said Adam Ozimek, a widely read economics blogger and consultant. “Areas that have declining populations and vacant houses—they’ve got a stronger need for immigrants. So the hope is that the areas that need them more would be able to let more in.”
There was a time when pretty much anyone in the world could move to the United States without worrying about whether they had the right paperwork in hand. “We hold out to the people of other countries an invitation to come and settle among us as members of our rapidly growing family,” said President John Tyler in 1841, as the nation was experiencing its first massive immigration wave. Over the course of that decade, according to a history of American immigration policy by Roger Daniels, a total of 1.7 million people arrived on American shores; by the end of the next one, they’d been joined by 2.6 million more.
In 1921, the federal government passed restrictive new quotas placing country-by-country limits on the number of arrivals each year. The quotas, driven by nativist fears about the country’s demographic makeup, remained largely in place until 1965. That year, President Lyndon Johnson pushed through a law forming the basis of the system we’ve had ever since—a more open but labyrinthine one in which potential immigrants can apply for a wide range of different visas, each unique in terms of who is eligible and how many can be given out every year.
From the beginning, US immigration policy has been regulated in a highly centralized manner, even as the population has spread out and regional needs have shifted. This kind of one-size-fits-all approach means that a Chinese citizen who has been offered a programming job in Cambridge will enter the same visa pool as an Austrian linguist who has been hired to work in Silicon Valley. Most likely, both would apply for so-called H1Bs, which are aimed at skilled workers; the problem is there are only 85,000 of them available per year, meaning that once that national ceiling is hit—this year it took less than a week—people start getting turned away.Continued...