Follow Canada on immigration

Let states issue visas to suit their economies as provinces do in Canada.

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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 foreign workers they need.

There is talk about raising the cap on visas for skilled workers -- called H-1Bs -- 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 a single 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 United States 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 United States, even though the U.S. population is 14 times bigger.

But Canada's provincial-nominee program is the best model for the United States. 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 policy.

Provinces may pick applicants left over from the federal program. They also can solicit their own applicants from anywhere in the world. To poach talent from the United States, some provinces are sponsoring H-1B holders stuck in the American labyrinth.

The role of the government in Ottawa is limited to conducting security, criminal and health checks 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 United States.

Richard Kurland, one of Canada's top immigration experts, 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 local labor markets.

The program 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. And 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 United States, California's higher tech economy is able to import foreign workers more easily than, say, Iowa's agrarian one.

Although some Canadian provinces, such as Saskatchewan, struggle with retention rates, this hasn't been a huge problem because 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 these primary interests, ensuring a balancing of both.

The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government authority to set immigration policy, but nothing prevents the government from giving states greater latitude. 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 be free to spurn foreigners, but they would have to face the economic and political consequences as businesses relocate to where workers are plentiful.

Odds are, just as in Canada, most states would become friends rather than foes of immigrants. And this would go some way toward facing the illegal immigration problem -- which is wholly the result of the lack of legal avenues for low-skilled foreigners to work and gain permanent residency in the United States. When these avenues were available under a guest-worker arrangement with Mexico that was scrapped in 1964 because of union opposition, there was no such problem.

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, states could give 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.

Given that the United States 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 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 United States doesn't adopt something similar, it might lose out in the global competition for skilled labor and never solve its problem with low-skilled undocumented workers.


Shikha Dalmia, a Detroit-based senior analyst at the Reason Foundation, wrote this for Bloomberg View.


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