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Why Letting States Sponsor Immigration Visas Should Satisfy Everyone


With President Trump’s executive orders on immigration stalled out in federal court, Washington could use some fresh thinking on immigration reform. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Rep. Ken Buck (R-CO) provided just that recently, unveiling the State Sponsored Visa Pilot Program Act of 2017, legislation that would give states the ability to sponsor temporary work visas.

This is a laudable step that should satisfy all sides of the ideological and political spectrum. State governments are in a better position than Washington DC to understand local immigration needs and capacities. Giving them a greater role in shaping guest worker flows will improve the economic performance of America’s immigration system.

In the face of the prolonged federal impasse on comprehensive immigration reform, blue and red states alike have shown interest in creating state-based visa programs. Legislators introduced bills in Arizona, California, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Utah went so far as to pass its own guest worker laws in 2011, with the understanding that enactment would require a federal waiver.

With no such federal waiver forthcoming, the efforts in Utah and other states have so far fallen short. The Johnson-Buck plan would provide welcome relief to such states, allowing them to apply to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for approval of their visa programs.

How This Would Work

Under the plan, states with DHS-approved programs would select and sponsor foreigners for temporary work visas. Once cleared by DHS, state-based visa holders would be allowed to live and work in the sponsoring state for a period of three years. The visa-holders would be ineligible for federal welfare benefits. Those who comply with the terms of their visas would be eligible for renewal and free to apply for permanent residency during their stay in the United States.

Unlike existing employment-based visas that tie foreign workers to one employer, state-sponsored visa holders would be free to work for employers throughout the sponsoring state. The plan also allows states to enter into interstate compacts to jointly administer their programs, broadening the potential set of employers by allowing visa-holders to live and work in different states.

This program would also correct issues many perceive with today’s employment-based visa system. Unlike with H-1B visas, state-sponsored visa-holders would be free to work for many potential employers. This leaves firms without monopsony power to suppress wages in order to hire these workers on the cheap. Underpaid visa-holders would simply find a higher-paying job at a different firm.

This Would Be Good for the Economy

By enriching local labor markets, state-sponsored visa programs would help revitalize struggling states and localities. This was the logic, for example, behind Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s 2014 request that the federal government reserve a share of its high-skilled employment green cards for people willing to live and work in the city of Detroit.

Snyder was on to something. In a place like Detroit, with a large number of vacant homes and irreversible infrastructure built for a much larger population, the spillover benefits from new migrants would be quite large. In such areas, an influx of foreign workers would stanch, slow, or potentially reverse decline by revitalizing neighborhoods, stabilizing housing markets, expanding the local tax base, deepening the local pool of human capital, attracting new businesses, and generating job growth.

Although overseen by the federal government, the plan would allow state governments to work with local governments and employers to tailor strategies that meet their economic development needs. For some states, this might mean a focus on recruiting seasonal workers in agriculture. Other states might orient their programs toward higher-skilled workers, as Snyder sought to do in Michigan. Others might focus sponsorship on entrepreneurs or investors. Whatever the specifics, the variety of programs that emerge from various states will serve as laboratories for ideas that can inform better federal immigration policy.

How to Handle People Who Break the Rules

The plan also gives states the option of using visas to create a path to authorization for undocumented foreign workers within their borders, after those migrants pay a penalty. State and local governments bear the majority of the fiscal burden associated with unauthorized foreign workers, but states are also in a good position to weigh those costs against the economic contributions such migrants make.

A natural question is how the state-sponsored programs will prevent visa overstays or unauthorized work outside of the sponsoring state. States that fail to keep absconders or overstayers to less than 3 percent of migrants would see their number of state-sponsored visas cut in half. States that repeatedly fall short of this mark would see their programs suspended entirely. Participating states therefore face strong enforcement incentives that start with selecting those who will comply with the terms of the visa.

If the experience with similar regional immigration programs in Australia and Canada is any guide, such compliance concerns are entirely manageable. Successful regional visa programs in Canada and Australia have aided economic and population growth in struggling regions. The participating regions enjoy high retention rates among sponsored workers, and the programs are popular among participating regions, migrants, and businesses.

State-sponsored visa programs would direct temporary foreign workers to the states that want them without pushing additional migrants on the states that don’t. Many states have already exhibited an interest in administering their own visa programs. The Johnson-Buck plan meets them halfway. Lawmakers across the political spectrum should welcome the opportunity to pilot state-based visa programs that can generate jobs and growth in their home states.