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State governments are in a far better position to understand the immigration needs of the towns and cities within their borders.

America’s cities are the engines of its growth. Though the immigration bill before Congress would help cities by increasing the flow of legal migrants, cities would be even better served by a bill that makes immigration decisions local. State governments are in a far better position to understand the immigration needs of the towns and cities within their borders. The federal government should allow them to sponsor region-based visas.

Region-based visas would be three-year, renewable non-resident visas. Like the H-1B visas for specialty employment, region-based visas would be dual-intent—the visa holders would be allowed to apply for permanent residency, and eventually citizenship, during their stay.

With security clearance from the federal government, foreign workers would be eligible to apply for state-based sponsorship. States would work with their towns and cities to determine how many immigrants to sponsor or whether to sponsor any immigrants at all. States would assign the visa-holders to specific regions or cities, allowing them to place applicants in the areas where their skill sets are needed most.

A visa-holder would be free to bring her immediate family members, provided she lives and works in the specified area and remains compliant with U.S. law. The program would be largely self-enforcing. First, workers with legal status experience a wage premium compared to their unauthorized counterparts. What’s more, the prospect of permanent residency or citizenship would be enough to keep most visa holders compliant with the term of their stay.

Region-based visas would be more efficient and equitable than current employment-based visas. Whereas visas such as the H-1B and H-2A tie immigrants to a single employer, region-based visa holders would be free to work for any firm in their region. The regional firms would compete to employ the visa-holders just as they compete for all other workers. Because the visa holders would be part of an integrated labor market, no one firm would be able to hire an immigrant at a below-market wage in lieu of paying a domestic worker the going market rate.

By giving states a way to match local needs with international talent, region-based visas would help cities and regions improve the quality and depth of their labor pools. Doing so would attract new firms, generate economic growth, create new jobs, and broaden the tax base. Because region-based visa holders would be free to move elsewhere once they obtain permanent residency, local governments would also face a strong incentive to improve public safety, service delivery, and quality of life in an effort to attract and retain residents.

The federal government could also give states the option of requiring region-based visa holders to purchase a primary residence. Regions with large inventories of vacant homes might make use of a home-purchase requirement in an effort to buoy the housing market. The requirement would be similar in some ways to the EB-5 Regional Center Program.

Under the EB-5 program, foreigners obtain a green card if they invest $1,000,000 or more in the United States, or $500,000 in select distressed areas. Region-based visas would complement, rather than crowd-out, EB-5 investment inflows. Because the EB-5 visa offers immediate residency, it would remain the most attractive option for wealthy foreign investors. The region-based visa, for which the promise of residency is more distant, would be attractive to immigrants who cannot afford the EB-5 visa but can nevertheless make valuable contributions to the American economy.

Best of all, we already know this is a policy that works. Canada's provincial-nominee program, the subject of recent articles by Shikha Dalmia and Nancy Scola, is popular and successful. The program gives participating Canadian provinces a greater say in selecting and recruiting immigrants. Unconstrained by the Ottawa consensus on immigration needs, the provinces are free to go out and recruit the immigrants that best suit their economic needs.

Region-based visas would give the states that want immigrants a chance to attract them, without the usual obstructionism from those that don’t. As Dalmia points out, the strategic use of region-based visas by pro-active states may even convince those with more restrictionist immigration views to change their tune:

Under such a system, states such as Arizona, where restrictionist fervor runs high, would certainly be free to spurn foreigners. Yet they would have to face the economic and political consequences as businesses relocate to where workers are plentiful. Odds are, just as in Canada, most states would become friends rather than foes of immigrants.

At the moment, the United States is needlessly shutting out people who can contribute to our economy in ways that would make everyone better off. Region-based visas would boost legal immigration by directing it to the cities and regions where it’s most desired.

Top image: Johnny Lye /Shutterstock

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