Republicans seem ready to play ball on immigration, if only to
patch up their image with Hispanics. It would be a pity if this
political moment—which comes only once every few decades—was
squandered on minor and temporary fixes. U.S. immigration policy
needs a fundamental rethinking.
This isn’t as daunting as it appears. For inspiration, Americans
need look no farther than Canada.
Canada’s provincial-nominee program,
while not perfect, avoids the economically meaningless distinctions
between skilled and unskilled workers that bedevil the
employment-based U.S. immigration laws. It also puts in place
incentives to treat foreign workers not as foes but as friends
whose labor and skills are vital to the economy.
Most reforms of the U.S. system under consideration won’t put
American employers in a position to make competitive bids to ensure
the steady supply of foreigners they need.
There is talk about raising the cap on visas for skilled
workers—called H1-Bs—and scrapping the limit on green cards so that
applicants from some countries don’t have to wait longer than
others. Right now, no more than 7 percent of the roughly 140,000
employment-based green cards issued every year can go to residents
of one country. (That creates a 10- to 15- year
wait for immigrants from India and China, the biggest
suppliers of graduates from high-demand STEM fields: science,
technology, engineering and math.)
As for the unskilled, a guest-worker program for Mexican labor
that would make it easier for migrants to get temporary visas for
seasonal work is gaining traction.
Such changes might address the most egregious defects in
immigration policies, yet the discussion shows how behind the curve
the U.S. is compared with other countries. Canada and Australia,
for example, skip the temporary work-visa step completely and offer
fast-track permanent residencies to highly skilled workers and
their spouses before they even arrive in the country. Australia offers
almost as many employment-based green cards as the U.S., even
though the American population is 14 times bigger.
But Canada’s provincial-nominee program is a model of economic
enlightenment. Under this system, 13 provincial entities sponsor a
total of 75,000 worker-based permanent residencies a year, and the
federal government in Ottawa offers 55,000. Each province can pick
whomever it wants for whatever reason—in effect, to use its quota,
which is based on population, to write its own immigration
Provinces may pick applicants left over from the federal
program. They can also solicit their own applicants from anywhere
in the world. In a direct attempt to poach talent from the U.S.,
some provinces are sponsoring H1-B holders stuck in the American
The government in Ottawa can’t question either the provinces’
criteria or their methods of recruitment. Its role is limited to
conducting a security, criminal and health check on foreigners
picked by the provinces, which has cut processing time for
permanent residency to one or two years—compared with a decade or
more in the U.S.
Richard Kurland, a lawyer who is considered Canada’s top
immigration expert, notes that provinces use the program for
diverse goals such as enhancing existing cultural or ethnic ties
with other countries. Not surprisingly, the most popular reason is
economic: to augment the local labor market.
gives British Columbia the same flexibility to sponsor, say,
bricklayers as it gives Ontario to sponsor computer programmers. It
doesn’t treat the entire Canadian economy as monolithic and pretend
that distant federal bureaucrats can effectively cater to local job
markets. (Canada’s federal program is a different story
There is no built-in bias against the labor needs of any
province. By contrast, thanks to the high skill-low skill
distinction in the U.S., California’s economy
is able to import foreign workers more easily than, say, Florida’s agrarian one.
Although some Canadian provinces, such as Saskatchewan, struggle
with retention rates, by and large this hasn’t been a huge problem
as immigrants’ skills are matched to the availability of local
jobs. All of this has made the program popular with provinces. Some
of them are lobbying to have their
quotas expanded or even eliminated.
Above all, the program is far more in tune with the spirit of
true federalism than U.S. immigration policies are. Provinces have
a natural interest in their economies and the federal government in
national security. Canada divides the federal and provincial roles
in accordance with their primary interests, ensuring a balancing of
Such an arrangement might seem untenable in the U.S., given that
the Constitution gives the federal government the authority to set
immigration policy whereas Canada’s explicitly makes it a joint
Nothing, however, prevents the U.S. government from giving
states greater latitude in setting their own immigration policies.
Last year, for example, the conservative Utah Legislature
passed a compact asking Congress for a waiver to carry out a
more compassionate and employer-friendly program, including a path
to legalization for unauthorized immigrants.
Under such a system, states such as Arizona, where
restrictionist fervor runs high, would certainly be free to spurn
foreigners. Yet they would have to face the economic and political
consequences as businesses relocate to where workers are
Odds are, just as in Canada, most states would become friends
rather than foes of immigrants.
This route would go some way toward facing the
illegal issue—which is wholly the result of the lack of legal
avenues for low-skilled foreigners to work and gain permanent
residency in the U.S. When these avenues were available under the
bracero program, a
guest-worker arrangement with Mexico that the U.S.
scrapped in 1964 because of union opposition, there was no such
States that need low-skilled workers would be able to obtain
visas and permanent residencies on their behalf just like states
that want high-skilled workers. Initially, the states could give
these visas to current illegal residents, as Utah would most
certainly do, although they wouldn’t have to.
The bigger issue would be deciding how many immigrants each
state can admit. Ideally, employers would alert state authorities
to their needs. States would weigh those requests against their
ability to provide public services and tell the federal government
how many background checks they should need in a given year. Canada
placed caps on each province, Kurland explained, because the
federal government in Ottawa was unable to quickly process
applicants and avoid backlogs.
Given that the U.S. already has a large immigration bureaucracy
dedicated to performing labor certifications and other tasks that
would be redundant under such a system, it should be able to handle
all state requests expeditiously. At any rate, working toward a
system that is able to respond quickly and efficiently to state
needs would be the final goal.
Canada’s provincial-nominee program is humane,
efficient and economically rational—everything that U.S.
immigration policy should be but isn’t. If the U.S. doesn’t reverse
course, it might lose out in the global competition for skilled
labor and never solve its problem with low-skilled undocumented
originally appeared in Bloomberg View.
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