Chapter 6: The Community Visa: A Local Solution to America’s Immigration Deadlock

May 13, 2020 • Publications
By Jack Graham and Rebekah Smith

This chapter is a part of 12 New Immigration Ideas for the 21st Century.

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Immigration is one of the most significant drivers of prosperity, but its potential is suppressed by restrictionist politics, centralized bureaucracies, and out‐​of‐​date policies. Furthermore, its benefits are concentrated in a few regions. Communities with the greatest need for immigrants, especially in rural areas and the Rust Belt, are receiving few immigrants as the majority move to big coastal cities. Rural areas also tend to have the highest levels of anti‐​immigrant sentiment, in part because they do not benefit from migration the same way that people in big coastal cities do.77

The United States needs a new approach to help businesses of all sizes get the workers they need, to renew communities threatened by demographic decline, and to build local support for more liberalized immigration.

Introduction to Community Visas

A community visa could be an additional nonimmigrant visa added to the current U.S. immigration system that would put control into the hands of communities and local employers. Under a community visa, counties could sponsor migrants in response to the local economy’s needs and immigrants to work for a period of up to two years in the region and sector that sponsors them, so long as they pay into a community welfare fund. After two years, migrants could apply for permanent residence. Visa sponsors would be a partnership between a business group in a certain sector and a local community organization. The visas would be awarded in sectors with a demonstrated demand for workers—such as the care economy, agriculture, or construction. Work authorization would be tied to a specific economic sector, not employers.

Community visas would direct migrants toward places that have the most to gain, with the buy‐​in of local communities. This would improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and fairness of policy implementation. In the long term, it would aim to liberalize immigration by building greater political support.

The Partnership

The purpose of creating a sponsor partnership is to respond to local economic demands while helping migrants integrate with the buy‐​in of the local population.

Community visas would be targeted to regional sectors experiencing a dearth of labor, based on demonstrated need standards that would be set at the federal level, in order to more equitably distribute the gains of migration to lagging sectors and areas. Toward this end, local chambers of commerce or business groups in cooperation with local county governments would file a petition to sponsor a certain number of visas, which would be specific to a sector and area but not employers. These sector‐​area groups would be responsible for the jobs and training and could find affordable ways to train and credentialize new migrants.78

Local business groups sponsoring these visas would have to partner with community organizations in their counties. The organizations would be responsible for immigrants’ smooth settlement, including aspects such as housing and language training. This is intended to strengthen the ties between immigrants and their host communities. Organization types would depend on location but could include local charitable foundations or clubs.

County governments would have primary responsibility for visa sponsorship and oversight and would work with local community organizations to support settlement and integration. This would not be an increase in local power because most local areas already have immigrant settlement policies.

Community Fund

A migrant on a community visa would have to pay a special fee to a local fund controlled by the county government. The fund would be managed by the county government cosponsoring the migrant and could be used however the government sees fit. The purpose of the special fee is to redistribute some of the enormous benefits of the community visa away from the migrant and toward the local community.79

Building Social Anchors

Under a community visa, the federal government would still handle security checks and visa issuances, but many powers would devolve to county governments, which could decide to opt into the program. Counties would be responsible for providing independent checks on work conditions and for collaborating with the federal government on enforcement if workers violate the terms of the visa. At the end of the sponsorship, workers would have earned a significant amount of money compared to what they could have earned back home. Regions would have received economic boosts, and through community funds, the vast gains from migration would accrue to local governments.

By this point, migrants could decide to apply for green cards and stay in the country permanently or go back to their home countries. The way community visas would be set up, however, should help forge social anchors between immigrants and their communities, helping encourage much‐​needed retention of new workers.

Overcoming Political Resistance and Empowering Local Governments

Community visas could decrease political resistance to immigration liberalization by creating a more equal distribution of the gains from migration and increasing links between migrants and their host communities. The strongest opposition to increased legal immigration comes from working‐​class native voters in areas with the smallest share of immigrants in the population.80 Currently, most of the benefits of immigration accrue to migrants and are most visible in growing urban areas.81 This unequal distribution of benefits feeds into negative perceptions and undermines political will to increase the share of immigrants in the workforce.

The community visa proposal is, in part, inspired by local governments in the United States and Europe that have created innovative ways to better welcome and integrate migrants.82 A 2018 study found that local governments in communities with lower median household incomes are more likely to have adopted local policies and programs that are welcoming to migrants.83 Recently, when states and cities were given the authority to veto refugee resettlement, Utah (a conservative‐​leaning state) publicly requested more refugees, noting that the newcomers become “productive employees and responsible citizens.”84 Some local communities are more willing to view migration as a benefit and are keen to welcome more migrants than national governments currently allow.

In fact, many local communities in the United States have already started to build capacity to integrate new neighbors, with community organizations and, often, local employers taking a lead in decisionmaking. One in eight Americans lives in a so‐​called Welcoming City, where the nonprofit Welcoming America has worked with policymakers and stakeholders to enhance economic and social inclusion of migrants in their city.85 Since 2013, 50 cities from 31 states have formally committed through this platform to promoting immigrant welcoming values and practices.86 American communities could also learn from the experiences of individuals, small groups, and community organizations that have privately sponsored over 300,000 refugees in Canada since 1978.87 Privately sponsored refugees have integrated and succeeded more effectively than those sponsored by the government.88

Countries have also begun experimenting with place‐​based visas and have learned lessons that should be applied in an American community visa. In Australia, for example, state and territory governments struggling for skilled workers have the power to sponsor migrants to work in their region.89 Meanwhile, Canada has the Provincial Nominee Program, which allows Canadian provinces to sponsor foreign workers for permanent residence, and it has recently launched the Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot—an expansion of the Atlantic Immigration Pilot—in which a number of remote communities across Canada sponsor permanent residents to fill local labor market demands.90 The challenge in some of these programs has been keeping the workers in the rural areas after they have arrived, so in this proposal, migrants would only be eligible to work in the county for which they received sponsorship. A key element of these regional visa programs elsewhere in the world is that they do not decrease the number of visas available through other means, which we copy for the community visa.

In the short term, therefore, a community visa could be a useful tool for policymakers in addition to broader immigration reform in Washington, DC. As a voluntary scheme led by local partners, communities could sponsor and retain immigrants for whom they have a demonstrated demand. The program could help renew U.S. communities in decline.

Giving local authorities more power to admit workers through a community visa should incrementally increase the number of foreign workers productively employed in the United States. In the ideal scenario, direct positive experiences with immigrants at the local level who share the gains may improve the median voter’s opinion of immigration generally.

A community visa should increase immigration, especially in parts of the country suffering from population and economic decline. In addition to the economic benefits from immigration, a community visa would give people in local communities some measure of control over immigration that would hopefully build a broader base of support for freer migration across the United States.

About the Authors

Jack Graham is a freelance policy journalist and researcher based in Toronto. Focusing on migration, early childhood, and employment policy, he writes for a variety of publications, think tanks, and foundations. Rebekah Smith is a visiting policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, working with the migration, displacement, and humanitarian policy team. She leads the exploratory design and setup of Labor Mobility Partnerships.


77 Elizabeth Fussell, “Warmth of the Welcome: Attitudes toward Immigrants and Immigration Policy in the United States,” Annual Review of Sociology 40 (July 2014): 479–98; and Chris Lawton and Robert Ackrill, “Hard Evidence: How Areas with Low Immigration Voted Mainly for Brexit,” The Conversation, July 8, 2016.

78 Michael A. Clemens, “Global Skill Partnerships: A Proposal for Technical Training in a Mobile World,” IZA Journal of Labor Policy 4, no. 2 (January 2015).

79 Michael Clemens, Claudio Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett, “Bounding the Price Equivalent of Migration Barriers,” Center for Global Development Working Paper no. 428, June 2016.

80 Ronald Brownstein, “Places with the Fewest Immigrants Push Back Hardest against Immigration,” CNN, August 22, 2017.

81 Jonathan Woetzel et al., People on the Move: Global Migration’s Impact and Opportunity (McKinsey Global Institute, December 2016); and Florence Jaumotte, Ksenia Koloskova, and Sweta Saxena, “Migrants Bring Economic Benefits for Advanced Economies,” IMFBlog, October 24, 2016.

82 Ricardo Gambetta and Zivile Gedrimaite, Municipal Innovations in Immigrant Integration: 20 Cities, 20 Good Practices, American Cities Series (Washington: National League of Cities, Municipal Action for Immigrant Integration, 2010).

83 Xi Huang and Cathy Yang Liu, “Welcoming Cities: Immigration Policy at the Local Government Level,” Urban Affairs Review 54, no. 1 (2018): 3–32.

84 Griff Witte, “Trump Gave States the Power to Ban Refugees. Conservative Utah Wants More of Them,” Washington Post, December 2, 2019.

85 “Who We Are,” About, Welcoming America, accessed February 17, 2020, https://​www​.wel​comingamer​i​ca​.org/​a​b​o​u​t​/​w​h​o​-​w​e-are.

86 Huang and Yang Liu, “Welcoming Cities.”

87 “Sponsor a Refugee,” Government of Canada, last modified December 3, 2019, https://​www​.cana​da​.ca/​e​n​/​i​m​m​i​g​r​a​t​i​o​n​-​r​e​f​u​g​e​e​s​-​c​i​t​i​z​e​n​s​h​i​p​/​s​e​r​v​i​c​e​s​/​r​e​f​u​g​e​e​s​/​h​e​l​p​-​o​u​t​s​i​d​e​-​c​a​n​a​d​a​/​p​r​i​v​a​t​e​-​s​p​o​n​s​o​r​s​h​i​p​-​p​r​o​g​r​a​m​.html.

88 Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, “Rapid Impact Evaluation of the Syrian Refugee Initiative,” December 2016.

89 “Subclass 489: Skilled Regional (Provisional) Visa,” Department of Home Affairs, Australian Government, last updated March 5, 2020, https://​immi​.home​af​fairs​.gov​.au/​v​i​s​a​s​/​g​e​t​t​i​n​g​-​a​-​v​i​s​a​/​v​i​s​a​-​l​i​s​t​i​n​g​/​s​k​i​l​l​e​d​-​r​e​g​i​o​n​a​l​-​p​r​o​v​i​s​i​o​n​a​l-489.

90 “Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot: About the Pilot,” Government of Canada, last modified January 14, 2020, https://​www​.cana​da​.ca/​e​n​/​i​m​m​i​g​r​a​t​i​o​n​-​r​e​f​u​g​e​e​s​-​c​i​t​i​z​e​n​s​h​i​p​/​s​e​r​v​i​c​e​s​/​i​m​m​i​g​r​a​t​e​-​c​a​n​a​d​a​/​r​u​r​a​l​-​n​o​r​t​h​e​r​n​-​i​m​m​i​g​r​a​t​i​o​n​-​p​i​l​o​t​.html.