How to Make Rick Snyder’s Visa Proposal Even Better

Brandon Fuller Brandon Fuller

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder will ask the federal government to allocate 50,000 EB-2 visas over 5 years for exclusive use by the city of Detroit. This would give Detroit the ability to recruit the highly-skilled and exceptionally talented people who typically receive the EB-2 employment visa, with an eye toward improving the city’s economy. Mayor Mike Duggan is on board with the plan, and the Obama Administration seems at least open to entertaining the request.

Recruiting immigrants is unlikely, by itself, to return Detroit to its former glory (as Shikha Dalmia has ably pointed out at Bloomberg). But given that the area around Detroit is on reasonably sound economic footing, it is not at all far fetched to believe that the city could see dramatic returns from a combination of recruiting immigrants, re-establishing public safety, and improving service provision.

Snyder’s policy proposal is important, not just for Michigan and Detroit but also for national immigration policy. The federal government should take this request very seriously. That said, there are also a few ways to substantially improve upon Snyder’s suggestion.

  1. The feds should allow all states, not just Michigan, to recruit immigrants to their towns and cities. Detroit is not the only city that would benefit from additional immigration. A bit of healthy competition between states would improve the national benefits from the program.
  2. Snyder is asking that a share of existing EB-2 visas go to Detroit. But the feds should make additional visas available to the states instead of carving them out from the existing visa caps. The idea here is to free up additional immigration for states that want it without forcing additional immigration on those that don't.
  3. The feds should allow the states to sponsor the visas, creating a new category of “state-based visas” in addition to the existing employment-based visas. A state-based visa would require the holder to live in a certain region (such as the state of Ohio or the city of Dayton), but unlike the EB-2 and other employment-based visas, state-based visas would give immigrants the freedom to work for any employer in the specified region. By giving regional employers and immigrants more freedom to make matches, state-based visas would improve the thickness, equity, and efficiency of local labor markets. Labor market thickness (the number of potential matches between employers and qualified employees) is especially important for local economic development—thicker labor markets are more likely to attract new firms.
  4. The feds should leave it to states to determine the skill-mix of the immigrants they recruit. The EB-2 visa is reserved for very highly-skilled workers or those with exceptional talents. Most states would jump at the opportunity to recruit more EB-2 eligible foreigners but many states may also have a need for people with more ordinary levels of skill. Together with the localities in their jurisdiction, states are in the best position to understand local economic needs and capacities. They should be free to set their immigration recruitment priorities accordingly.

These are just a few ideas on how to establish a more federalist approach to immigration. For more on this, see the pieces that Sean Rust and I wrote for City Journal and Atlantic Cities. Adam Ozimek at the Modeled Behavior blog is someone who has greatly influenced both Sean and my thinking on this topic. See relevant posts from Adam here and here. Also, see what Nancy Scola wrote about the workings of the already successful province-based immigration program in Canada.

Finally, Sean and I are working to publish a more detailed policy paper on state-based visas with help from Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute. More soon, but here’s the draft abstract:

A state-based visa program would create a temporary work permit that allows participating states to manage the flow and regulate the quantity of temporary migrants who want to live and work within their borders.  Ideally, law-abiding visa-holders would be eligible for renewal and free to apply for permanent residency during their stay in the United States. Though overseen by the federal government, a state-based visa program would allow state governments to craft a better functioning work visa program that is more adaptable – perhaps even supplying lessons for future federal work visa programs. 

A state-based visa program would direct immigration to the states that want it without forcing additional immigration on those that do not.  If states are allowed to increase immigration enforcement they should have the power to increase lawful migration. Unlike existing employment-based visas that tie foreign workers to one firm, state-based visa holders would be free to move between employers in the state — leading to thicker, more equitable, and more efficient local labor markets. A state-based visa would increase prosperity by allowing additional migration to portions of the country and economy that demand them. Successful international experiences with regional visas in Australia and Canada provide some valuable policy lessons and hint at the major economic benefits of such a policy in the United States.

Tile image courtesy of TPapi.

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