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Learning from Canadian Immigration Policy

+ Brandon Fuller

We’ve lost our way and we need to go back to fundamentals and say we’re the place that welcomes everyone. That’s how you lead the world.— Michigan Governor Rick Snyder

For American governors who want to encourage greater immigration, Nancy Scola’s latest piece for Next City is a must read (UP helped to take this story out from behind the paywall). Scola takes a close look at Canada’s Provincial Nominee Programs and considers whether the United States could adopt a similar approach: 

Under the arrangement, federal officials still play a role, signing off on the fact that provincial nominees meet the country’s health and safety standards and actually awarding the permanent resident card. But they do it with a light touch, and quickly. In recent years, the Canadian government has rejected just 4 percent of the provinces’ handpicked nominees. The average processing time for the vast majority of applicants was a speedy 12 months. Compare that to the 4.5 years for those coming in through the federal skilled worker program.Critically, the central goal of the PNPs is to devolve it out to the provinces in a way that lets them figure out their own local labor needs, and how to meet them. “Communities are involved in the planning process,” says Margot Morrish, Manitoba’s director of policy, research and communication. Provinces and employers go abroad to recruit and host career fairs at home.

Shikha Dalmia, who’s Bloomberg View column advocates for a similar approach in the U.S., points out that Canada’s approach “is far more in tune with the spirit of true federalism than U.S. immigration policies are.”

So, what might this look like in the United States? It’s a question that Sean Rust and I have been thinking about recently. We’ve been particularly inspired by conversations with Adam Ozimek, who has written about region-based visas here and here on the Forbes Modeled Behavior blog. (I use “region-based” and “place-based” interchangeably.)

Sean and I are still thinking this through but here’s a sketch of one possible approach:

  • Federal government gives states the ability to sponsor region-based visas.
  • Region-based visa classified as non-immigrant and dual intent, lasting 3 years with the possibility of renewal.
  • Visa-holders can apply for permanent residency during stay.
  • States work with local governments and firms to identify need for additional immigration.
  • Visa-holders required to live and work full-time in the region specified by their sponsoring state.*
  • Visa-holders free to bring dependants with them.
  • Option for states: require visa-holders to purchase a primary residence (similar to bipartisan proposal for VISIT-USA Act in the Senate) .

Some benefits of a region-based visa approach:

— H-1B and other employment-based visas tie foreign workers to one employer. By freeing up where workers can work and who firms can hire, region-based visas would substantially improve matching in regional labor markets.

— Some claim that firms use H-1B visas to depress wages and displace native workers. Such claims are disputed, but if H-1B visas do in fact confer some degree of monopsony power, a region-based visa program would work to undercut it—ensuring that firms cannot hire foreign workers at below market rates for the region.

— Region-based visas would not undermine the already successful EB-5 visa program. EB-5 grants immediate permanent residency to wealthy foreigners who invest $1M in the United States (or $0.5M in select regions of need). EB-5 visas would continue to be far more attractive to international investors than region-based visas because the EB-5 visa comes with the immediate promise of a green card.

— Region-based visas give struggling regions the right incentives—a window of opportunity in which to demonstrate to would-be permanent residents that the region can offer an attractive environment in which to live, work, and raise a family.

— Region-based visas are self-enforcing: How many visa-holders would compromise their chance at a green card by violating the region-based visa’s location requirement?

Most importantly, region-based visas would direct additional immigration to the states and localities that want it. From Scola’s piece:

I put the same question to nearly every Canadian with whom I spoke: Did they think their place-based approach could work in the U.S.? I get nearly the same response. “Manitoba knows what’s best for Manitoba, and California would know what’s best for California. Same thing,” says Kelly Legaspi. “Maine and Nebraska know what they’re looking for, so let them make their own selections,” says David Cohen. And, “Sure it could,” booms Michael Greene. “Why couldn’t it?”

Michigan understands its immigration needs better than Washington. We should allow it and other states a much greater say on the matter of additional immigration.


*Two important notes here:

1. A location requirement is not unprecedented—existing visas such as the H-1B and the H-2A restrict visa-holders to one employer, effectively limiting where they can live;

2. If a region-based visa holder applies for and receives permanent residency he/she would then have the option of living and working anywhere in the United States.

Tile image by Vianney (Sam) Carriere.

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