In 2014, the Cato Institute published a policy analysis that argued that Congress should create a work visa program that would allow states to select some of the foreign workers that the federal government admits—a model that Canada has used for decades. All states would benefit from this approach, since they all suffer from low federal caps on visas and since they all have the best knowledge of their local labor markets. But the states that will likely benefit the most are states with lower populations.
While there is no breakdown of the total number of visas issued to workers by state, we know how many workers enter each state annually. This number is imprecise as a measure of the total number of workers in each state because it double counts people who leave the state and reenter during the year, but it is still useful for looking at the distribution of workers among the states.
Figure 1 presents the distribution of all worker entries and entries of workers under the most important category—the H temporary work visa—by grouping the states into three roughly equal baskets: 1) the very large states with more than five percent of the entire U.S. population, 2) those in the middle with 2 to 5 percent, and 3) those with 2 percent or less. As is readily apparent, the big four states—California, Texas, New York, and Florida—receive a much higher percentage of workers than their share of the population. The middle group of states receives only slightly less than their population share for all worker entries.
On the other hand, the smallest states receive not only fewer workers in absolute terms, but disproportionately less than other states compared to their population. These 34 states are home to 30 percent of all Americans, but receive just 18.6 percent of guest workers overall—an 11.4 percent difference between population share and worker share. A similarly large gap can be seen for worker entries under the important H category.
Figure 1: Difference Between Share of All Worker Entries and Share of U.S. Population; Share of H Worker Entries and Share of the Population in 2014