Members of Congress Announce New State-Based Visa Bills at Cato Event

At a Cato Institute Capitol Hill Briefing today, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Congressman Ken Buck (R-CO) announced their intention to introduce new immigration legislation that would allow states to sponsor workers, entrepreneurs, and investors. Sen. Johnson introduced his version this afternoon. In 2014, Cato wrote a policy analysis about this idea. My colleague Alex Nowrasteh and I have published blog posts and op-eds about it, and Cato’s Handbook for Policymakers urged Congress to implement such a policy.

State-sponsored visas would build much-needed flexibility and adaptability into the federal immigration system. We are pleased that members of Congress are finally taking up this innovative and important idea.

The federal government’s monopoly over legal immigration fails to address the diversity of economic needs among the states. A more decentralized visa program could head off local problems before they build into a national crisis, building flexibility into the system that exists in every other area of the market. Giving states greater control would also increase political support for immigration programs and allow Congress to reform the system without needing to agree on every issue.

The federal government determines the number of foreign workers, the type of work that they can perform, and the terms under which they must live. The question today is whether any of these functions could be better handled at the state level.

As a legal matter, this is a question that Congress may answer. Most recently, in the Arizona v. U.S. decision, the Supreme Court held that the states are limited in this area only to the extent that Congress chooses to limit them.

From an economic perspective, the static federal monopoly makes little sense. In a market economy, you want systems that adjust quickly to changes at the local level. The federal system doesn’t change until local problems build into a national one, while a decentralized system could head off issues before a crisis develops. Despite widespread agreement that there has been a crisis for more than a decade, no changes have occurred.

The federal-only system also makes little sense politically. Giving states greater control would increase political support for immigration programs. The fights in Congress that have killed reform efforts in the past could be effectively transferred to state Capitols. Congress could fix the system without finding total agreement.

From an enforcement perspective, guest worker programs have historically reduced illegal immigration, creating an incentive for people to come to the United States legally. And limiting workers to a single state is actually less of a challenge than limiting them to a single employer, as the current federal guest worker programs do. More importantly, according to the Government Accountability Office, about 90 percent of overstays are tourists, not guest workers, because the workers want to be invited back to work legally. This incentive has kept their overstay rate well below 3%.

As is detailed in the Cato policy analysis, this idea has been implemented successfully in two other geographically diverse, former British colonies—Canada and Australia. Both countries use regional visa programs to distribute immigration more fairly and allow rural areas to obtain labor for difficult jobs.

The popularity of these programs can be seen in their rapid growth over the last two decades. They are now the second largest source of economic immigration to these countries.

The United States has a long history of federalism and federal-state partnerships, yet it has so far not applied this tradition to immigration. But some states have already passed bills advocating state-based visas. All states already directly sponsor visa applicants as students through their public universities or workers in their capacity as employers. These protocols could be expanded to allow states to sponsor workers on behalf of their industries.

Hopefully, the fact that it is two conservative members of Congress who are pushing this proposal will change the game politically.