12 New Immigration Ideas for the 21st Century

Policy analysts, economists, political scientists, journalists, and advocates from around the world offer new policy suggestions that future Congresses could use to liberalize the legal immigration system.

12 New Immigration Form Ideas Cover Art
  • Introduction
  • Automatic Cap Adjustments
  • Maximum Wait Times
  • A U.S.-Mexican Bilateral Agreement
  • A U.S.-Canadian Bilateral Agreement
  • State-Sponsored Visas
  • The Community Visa
  • Congress-Sponsored Visas
  • Immigration Moneyball
  • An IDEAL Proposal
  • Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It
  • Prediction Market Selection
  • Transferable Citizenship
  • Downloads
  • Endnotes
  • Related Content


Congress has repeatedly considered and rejected comprehensive immigration reform legislation over the past few decades. The most bitter debates were in 2006, 2007, and 2013 when comprehensive bills passed one house of Congress and not the other. Those reforms each failed for particular reasons—groundswells of populist opposition, Democratic senators working with Republicans to remove guest worker provisions, or Republican failure to bring it to the floor in the House of Representatives—but the bills were all basically identical. 

Those failed immigration reforms all included three policies: legalize illegal immigrants currently living in the United States, increase border and interior enforcement of the immigration laws, and liberalize legal permanent immigration and temporary migration through an expanded guest worker visa program for lower‐​skilled workers. A domestic amnesty for illegal immigrants was supposed to clear the black market and allow those who have made a life here to settle permanently; extra enforcement was supposed to reduce the potential for illegal immigrants to come in the future; liberalized immigration was supposed to boost U.S. economic prosperity and drive future would‐​be illegal immigrants into the legal market.

In theory, this comprehensive approach was supposed to make future amnesties unnecessary by fixing the laws that encouraged illegal immigration in the first place. The bill Congress considered in 2013, the last attempt at comprehensive immigration reform, followed the same model, which is a major reason the bill failed. For instance, the guest worker provisions for lower‐​skilled workers were all clones and the result of negotiations between the same stakeholders.

Liberalizing legal immigration is the most important component of workable, long‐​term reform. The legal immigration system sets and regulates numbers, procedures, and the types of foreigners who can come to the United States from abroad to work, live, and in some cases eventually naturalize. Providing legal paths for more immigrants, either for temporary work or permanent citizenship, is the best way to secure the border and would help provide for the future prosperity of the United States. The government cannot regulate a black market of illegal immigrants, but it can regulate legal immigrants.

Expanding legal immigration is a worthy goal, but there are many ways to accomplish it. The mission of this collection of essays from policy analysts, economists, political scientists, journalists, and advocates from around the world is to provide new policy suggestions that future Congresses could use to liberalize the legal immigration system. We intentionally avoided seeking proposals from the usual stakeholders and included many original ideas that could increase legal immigration or improve the selection of legal immigrants. The essays fall into four broad categories based on how much they would transform the current legal immigration system. The first category includes proposed rule changes that would substantially improve the current system. In one essay, Daniel Griswold of the Mercatus Center proposes that Congress abolish the static numerical caps on certain visas and instead create a built‐​in numerical escalator that automatically grows the number of visas as employment grows. For example, the number of H‐​1Bs issued would increase as employment in certain hightechnology sectors increases. Similarly, Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy recommends addressing the extreme wait times that skilled immigrants currently face by guaranteeing them legal permanent residence within five years, essentially replacing numerical quotas with a specific wait time.

The second category of essays includes discussions of adding visa categories to the current system. Many of the ideas in this category are based on older visa programs that have been discontinued, visa programs in other countries, logical extensions to the current U.S. system, or admissions policies in other public institutions, such as military academies.

Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development proposes a jointly regulated migration system with Mexico based on lessons learned from the past and best practices from other bilateral migration programs enacted around the world. Michelangelo Landgrave, a political science doctoral candidate at the University of California, Riverside, proposes a similar policy for Canada based on the principles of reciprocity in work authorization and limited access to welfare, of which, according to survey data, Americans and Canadians alike approve.

David Bier of the Cato Institute proposes state‐​based visas that would allow state governments to accept immigrants based on their diverse economic conditions. In a similar vein, coauthors Jack Graham and Rebekah Smith propose a system whereby local governments would work with private sponsors to bring immigrants into their communities. Both essays highlight the importance of engaging state governments to implement important reforms.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform offers a proposal inspired by the acceptance policies of U.S. military academies. It would allow each member of Congress to sponsor 100 immigrants for legal permanent residence— similar to how they nominate recruits for U.S. military academies.

The third category includes proposed changes that would transform how the current U.S. immigration system works.

George Mason University professor Justin Gest envisions a major overhaul of the selection process for immigrants. Under his system, the government would collect much better data on various immigrant outcomes and track immigrants over time to see how they integrate. It would then assign points for immigrants with certain characteristics that the data show correlate with immigrant success.

Steve Kuhn of IDEAL Immigration proposes selling visas to employers, provided they’ve made job offers to foreign workers and paid the workers premiums that match the cost. Nathan Smith’s proposal would increase the number of immigrants admitted but charge them an extra 20 percent tax on their incomes so long as they reside and work in the United States.

The fourth category and the last two fundamental policy reform ideas come from Robin Hanson, associate professor of economics at George Mason University. His reforms would increase immigration, cause more Americans to profit directly from the immigration system, and provide a way to select immigrants that are more beneficial to the United States.

Hanson’s first essay is similar to Gest’s proposal but relies on a more decentralized decisionmaking process to select immigrants using prediction markets. Under this proposal, the public would place cash bets in an open market on which immigrants would succeed based on objectively measurable criteria such as net‐​fiscal impact. The immigration system would then select those priced the highest. In his second essay, Hanson suggests letting U.S. citizens sell or lease their citizenship to noncitizens abroad in exchange for leaving the country. This would monetize the value of American citizenship and create an asset held by every American.

These proposed reforms are just a few of the new and interesting ideas out there. Hopefully, some will be incorporated into future bills; others could spark new and more creative ways of how to change immigration laws. We don’t endorse every essay in this paper, but the stagnant state of the current debate shows the need for bold new ideas and out‐​of‐​the‐​box thinking that will better prepare us for the next immigration reform debate.

Chapter 1: Automatic Adjustment of the H-1B Visas and Employment‐ Based Green Cards Caps

By Daniel Griswold

Congress should tie the growth of employment‐ based visas to growth in the most relevant sectors of the U.S. labor force to assure that the annual number of visas available more closely matches the demands of the U.S. economy over time. Two of the most important visas for foreign‐​born workers are the H-1B visa and the employment‐​based green card, both for more‐​skilled and more‐​educated foreign born workers. Yet the number of such visas available has not changed significantly in almost three decades despite transformational growth in the U.S. labor market.

Chapter 2: Reducing Long Wait Times for Family‐​Sponsored and Employment‐​Based Immigrants

By Stuart Anderson

Immigration opponents frequently argue that immigrants should “wait in line” and come to America the “right way.” Many Americans would say the “right way” means applying for permanent residence or a temporary visa through the legal immi­gration system. But several factors complicate foreign nationals using the legal immigration system. First, the categories to immigrate legally, or even to work for a time on a temporary visa, are limited. Second, and the focus of this analysis, the legal immigration categories that exist often force those who apply to wait many years to immigrate. The primary cause of these long waits is that the demand for visas far outstrips the supply, which the law constrains with specific numerical limits for each visa category.

Chapter 3: Shared Border, Shared Future: A U.S.-Mexican Bilateral Worker Agreement

By Michael Clemens

The U.S. government has mismanaged labor mobility and failed to cooperate meaningfully with migrant countries of origin for the past half‐​century. Foreign workers have come for fundamental jobs, which are those that are critical to the U.S. economy and that do not require formal higher education, such as personal care, construction, warehousing, and others. They have come almost exclusively via family‐​based green cards, “low‐​skill” temporary guest worker visas for seasonal jobs tied to a single employer, or through a vast black market in labor. Many of the ills associated with migration arise from this regulatory system, not from migration itself. The United States needs a bilateral system of labor mobility for fundamental jobs that should begin

Chapter 4: Constructing a U.S.- Canadian Bilateral Labor Agreement

By Michelangelo Landgrave

Under current law, citizens of the United States and Canada can visit each other’s countries for a short time without a visa. However, visitors face tight restrictions on residing or working in each country. The United States and Canada should create a bilateral labor agreement (BLA) that allows for the free movement, residency, and work rights for citizens in both countries. Drawing on lessons from Europe’s Schengen Agreement, this agreement should be based on three principles: work authorization, restricted welfare access, and reciprocity. Data from an original survey show that an overwhelming majority of American citizens, across both major political parties, would favor a BLA based on these principles.

Chapter 5: State‐​Sponsored Visas

By David J. Bier

The federal government has maintained a near monopoly on the criteria for the admission of foreigners to the United States since the late 19th century. This centralization makes little sense in such an economically diverse country. Every state and locality have specific social and economic circumstances that the current centralized immigration system ignores. This centralization has ultimately polarized and paralyzed the national immigration debate and directly led to a three decades‐ long delay of major reforms to a system that most agree desperately needs it. For this reason, Congress should allow state governments to sponsor migrants based on their own criteria under federal supervision.

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

By Jack Graham and Rebekah Smith

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. 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.

Chapter 7: Building a Congressional Constituency for Immigration through “Earmarks”

By Grover Norquist

For many years, U.S. presidents have had significant discretion to make immigration policy, liberalizing or restricting rules on entry and setting deportation priorities. Congress has enacted little legislation of its own because it lacks the overwhelming national consensus required to pass reforms on the issue. But giving individual members of Congress more authority to select immigrants for permanent residence could overcome this stalemate.

Chapter 8: Immigration Moneyball

By Justin Gest

President Trump wants to overhaul the U.S. immigration system so that it stops favoring visa applicants with U.S. family ties and instead gives priority to highly skilled applicants and those with job offers. His proposal is based on the assumption that immigrants’ educational credentials—what the administration calls “merit”—will lead to increased U.S. wages and immigrants who better integrate into U.S. culture.

Chapter 9: Immigration Designed to Enhance American Lives (IDEAL)

By Steve Kuhn

The immigration reform proposals most likely to succeed are those that create benefits for Americans and immigrants and that garner bipartisan support. The Immigration Designed to Enhance American Lives (IDEAL) proposal strikes a balance between competing interests by allowing more legal immigrants to work in the United States by paying the federal government for the opportunity. That revenue could then be used to reduce the tax burden or otherwise benefit native‐​born Americans. This essay and planks are based on the IDEAL Immigration Policy.

Chapter 10: Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It

By Nathan Smith

Many economists—including Nobel laureate Gary Becker—favor taxing immigration because charging a “price” can produce a more efficient result than restricting it with government‐​established caps or quotas. Good immigration policy ought to bring the greatest good to the greatest number, subject to the constraints of being compatible with human rights and incentives and of making many people better off without making others worse off. Consistent with those principles is a proposed policy called “Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It.”

Chapter 11: Choosing Immigrants through Prediction Markets

By Robin Hanson

On immigration, the big political camps are in a tug of war. One side favors more immigrants; the other side wants fewer immigrants. But when faced with such a struggle, policymakers who care more about influence than about feeling solidarity should consider tugging the rope sideways, where fewer might oppose their efforts. To tug the rope sideways on immigration, policymakers should take a policy position that is perpendicular to the axis of more versus fewer immigrants. One sideways‐​pull policy would be to reform immigration laws to use prediction markets to admit different immigrants, without increasing the total number.

Chapter 12: Transferable Citizenship

By Robin Hanson

Governments have long worked hard to create strong feelings of solidarity between citizens. National leaders often appeal to a common history of mutual aid, sacrifice, and even ethnic and cultural ties to garner support for government actions. All of this has helped create a relatively sacred and exclusive aura regarding citizenship that, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, is “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle‐​field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land.” According to long‐​standing human norms, such associations are not to be created lightly and are debased when they are mixed with material motives such as money or other expressions of self‐​interest.