more on: migration

Reihan Salam on City-Based Visas

+ Brandon Fuller

Reihan Salam offers useful comments on the idea of city-based visas (background here and here). Reihan is generally supportive but expresses some concerns that many Americans probably share:

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.

A few points in response. Under the proposal that Paul Romer, Mauro De Lorenzo, and I have tossed around the participating cities would be responsible for ensuring that visa holders do not disappear illegally elsewhere in the United States. If an agency like Homeland Security determines which cities qualify to participate and how many visas to issue, it could presumably hold cities to account for preventing leakage. It’s also worth noting that visa-holders who want to stay in the U.S. could apply for permanent residency and, upon obtaining it, move wherever they’d like. Participating cities hoping to retain newcomers would therefore have an extra incentive to improve governance and quality of life.

As for less-skilled immigration: given the choice, I assume participant cities would prefer to sponsor larger numbers of skilled workers than less-skilled workers. The program we’re thinking about would require cities to assume the financial burden of sponsoring visa-holders, putting means-tested federal transfers off limits. The cities would therefore face additional incentives to sponsor employable visa-holders.

Participating cities could also sponsor visas for undocumented (often less-skilled) workers. Though the city government assumes the financial burden of granting people formal status, the net gains from legitimizing workers and families who have largely integrated themselves into the social and economic fabric of the city could be significant.

A couple of final points. There is some evidence that less-skilled immigrants generate modest benefits for less-skilled native-born workers (high school or less) because they complement one another in the production process — see this Matt Yglesias post, for example. Setting this technical issue aside, I still think that a city-based visa program would encourage more skilled immigration than not. An additional merit of city-based visas is their development policy potential. The work of ClemensPritchett, and Montenegro suggests that the benefits of additional migration to the United States have the potential to dwarf the benefits of any development goals that we could hope to achieve through traditional aid programs or international trade agreements. I’m not sure whether explicitly publicizing the development benefits of this sort of program makes it more or less politically palatable, but the global gains are there nevertheless.

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