Reforming Immigration One State at a Time


Several states, red and blue, want the federal government let them craft their own guest-worker programs.


With Congress stuck among the contradictory demands of labor, business and talk-radio restrictionists, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama has been able to move the needle on immigration reform. Meanwhile, as the economy gathers steam, states face a tight labor market at all skill levels.

There might be a way forward, if Congress enacts legislation to give states standing waivers or permission to craft their own guest-worker programs. It sounds radical, but several states, red and blue, have already been trying to do this.

California, New Mexico and Kansas have passed resolutions or drafted legislation to issue guest-worker visas to undocumented aliens. Three pending bills in Texas would let state employers hire foreign workers from abroad on temporary work visas. Utah’s conservative legislature overwhelmingly approved legislation in 2011 to let undocumented workers obtain a two-year visa. But Utah’s program has been postponed, because immigration is a federal function and states would need federal waivers. President Obama has stonewalled Utah’s waiver request.

One way to release states from the partisan whims of administrations would be for Congress to erect a statutory architecture under which states could implement their own guest-worker programs. Canada has done this through its highly successful Provincial Nominee Program.

Each of Canada’s 13 provinces can hand out a fixed number of permanent residences based on population. Provinces can sponsor foreigners for many reasons but most use the program to fill labor gaps. Ottawa’s role is confined to conducting security or health checks—leaving the planning of local labor markets to the provinces.

A U.S. version might begin, notes the Niskanen Center’s David Bier,by letting states hand out an average of 5,000 work visas. These visas could be renewed indefinitely and their holders could apply for green cards through normal channels, as H-1B visa holders can do currently.

These workers would have far more labor mobility than under the current H-1B visas that tether workers to a single employer. States could also form compacts allowing foreign workers to take jobs anywhere in the consortium.

States that fear a strain on their public services could decline to issue these visas, eliminating a major restrictionist objection that has stymied national reform. And since the visa is a path to legal work, immigrants would have little incentive to relocate to a state that’s not in the program. But Mr. Bier suggests lowering the number of visas to states whose guest workers do relocate. This would give these states a strong incentive to enforce the visas’ terms.

At the Heritage Foundation last year, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a leading restrictionist, praised the Canadian system because it gives priority to a “province that needs workers.” “Canada went through a national discussion,” he said. “And I like what they did.”

America’s immigration debate has become distressingly focused on militarizing the border and draconian interior enforcement. Letting states experiment with different immigration strategies offers a realistic compromise in line with conservative principles.

Ms. Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation.