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Scholars are floating a new method of immigration sponsorship.

Add this wrinkle to America's ongoing immigration debate: city-based visas. 

Proposed by the NYU Urbanization Project led by economist Paul Romer, the idea is that cities could use a system of place-based visas to sponsor immigrants. Brandon Fuller, a research scholar at the Urbanization Project and director of Romer's Charter Cities organization, explains it this way on the project's blog:

Not all cities welcome additional immigration, but perhaps those that do could sponsor visa holders. The visa could be temporary and renewable, with a path to permanent residency and eventually citizenship. Visa holders would be free to bring their immediate family members with them.

Presumably, the sponsoring cities would have to adequately address some of the primary concerns of immigration opponents, ensuring that visa holders do not receive means-tested transfers from the federal government, commit crimes, or disappear into non-participating cities. A participating city could choose to sponsor undocumented immigrants, provided the city is willing to take on the responsibility of making them legal residents and eventually citizens.

In addition to clearing visa holders and determining the number of visas to distribute each year, the [United States] Department of Homeland Security could accept or reject the applications of cities wishing to participate in the program. This would help to ensure that only American cities meeting acceptable standards of governance would be free to sponsor immigrants and their families.

A policy that allows a greater number of law-abiding immigrants into the American cities that want them most could do more for global welfare than other policies related to trade and aid. An effective policy of this sort would be a win-win — a way for struggling American cities to stabilize their populations and a way for immigrant families to live, work, and study in the United States.

There are two potential pathways for creating city-based visas, according to Fuller. The first is to create a new visa category specifically for cities (Fuller's preferred approach), in which the city would sponsor a visa directly and help place the visa-holder in a job. The second would fall within the existing visa arrangement, where cities would create an employment-contracting company that would sponsor the visa and then contract out employees to local companies. In both cases, the immigrant would be required to live within city limits, but would not necessarily need to work within the city.

Fuller sees it as a "win-win" for cities and for new immigrants.

American cities like Baltimore, Dayton, and Detroit are eager to attract immigrants in an effort to stem population losses. And there’s little doubt that many foreign families would happily move in if given the chance. The potential gains from trade here are pretty huge — one has to wonder if adjustments to American immigration policy could help to realize them.

The idea has started to gain some traction and generate debate. In a blog post last month for National Review, Reihan Salam suggests limiting the idea to highly-skilled immigrants.

Another objection might be that these city-based visas will inevitably result in “leakage” as immigrants who have committed to residing in Detroit choose not to do so, despite the fact that this would jeopardize the visa. My sense, however, is that demand for the opportunity to live and work in the U.S. — even in a depressed economic region — is sufficiently great that this problem would prove surmountable. In keeping with my broader instincts regarding immigration policy, I think there is a strong case for restricting city-based visas to skilled immigrants, particularly if the goal is to create complementary employment opportunities for less-skilled native-born workers.

Fuller stresses that the idea is very much in the earliest stages of development, and the group is reaching out to colleagues in the legal profession to develop it further in light of U.S. immigration law.

Top image: LouLouPhotos / Shutterstock.com

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