Proposed State-Sponsored Visas Affirm a Skills-Based Approach to Immigration

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer February 20, 2020
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​A new immigration reform proposal before Congress would create a pilot program for states to opt in and sponsor renewable three-year visas based on each state's employment needs.

The bill, introduced by Rep. John Curtis, R‑Utah, and supported by the Utah governor's office and state business groups, draws on components of the Australian and Canadian immigration systems.

Over the last decade, several bills have been introduced in state legislatures asking the federal government for permission to establish their own work visa programs. Utah passed a pilot program in 2011 that was never implemented because of federal restrictions. The last high-profile proposal came from Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who offered a bill in 2017 modeled after Canada's Provincial Nominee Program.

Under Curtis' legislation, the federal government would continue to maintain control over admissions, processing and security checks, while the state governments would select the foreign national workers and regulate their activity within the state. Each state would get an average of 10,000 visas a year—5,000 guaranteed and an additional number assigned based on population.

"Each state has unique industries and employment opportunities, and our current immigration system doesn't fully recognize those differences," Curtis said. "My proposal grants states the flexibility to tailor a visa program based on their industries and their needs and allow visa holders the flexibility to move throughout the state as employment demands shift. In the winter we need help with the skiing industry, in the summer we need help with agriculture."

Notably, no state‐sponsored visa worker would be tied to a single employer, said Alex Nowrasteh, a senior immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C. "There could be hundreds of different economic visas adapted to local economies rather than just a handful of temporary federal visas for some occupations," he said. "California might create a state visa for high‐tech entrepreneurs, Wisconsin would create one for dairy workers, and Utah could attract tourism entrepreneurs. Texas may want oil‐rig workers, and Michigan could attract real estate developers for Detroit."

Under the proposal, how states decide whom to sponsor for a visa is left entirely up to them, and the state visas wouldn't be subtracted from the number of visas available through the federal immigration system. The legislation includes incentives for states to earn additional visas and enforcement penalties for noncompliance, which would cut visas or remove the state from the program.

It also encourages states to enter regional compacts, giving additional flexibility to visa holders and employers to move seasonal workers between them as needed. "For example, the Western states … could all sign a compact to allow state‐sponsored farmworkers to move with seasonal crops," Nowrasteh said.

Ron Gibson, president of the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, which supports the proposal, said the bill would greatly benefit agricultural employers by allowing Utah to enter into pacts with other states to share workers. Gibson said that farmers in the state have not been able to adequately access and retain farm labor under the current federal H-2A visa program.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has said that he would "jump at the opportunity" to design a work visa program for the state, which currently has a 2.3 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in the nation.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Understanding and Obtaining U.S. Employment Visas]

Comparisons with Australia, Canada

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said "there's a lot of appeal in states playing a bigger role in selecting immigrants" using a process modeled after those used in Australia and Canada—good examples of the emphasis on a more skills-based immigration system.

"But the big question mark is the implementation, enforcement and monitoring," she said, pointing out that both Australia and Canada have far fewer states or provinces to deal with than the 50 states in the U.S.

"The part that's proven tricky for Australia and Canada, and would be for the U.S., is how to make sure people stay where they are sponsored," she said. "In Australia and Canada, people sponsored by the states and provinces often end up in the country's biggest cities when they have freedom of movement."

A significant difference from Canada's system is that the provincial selection program sponsors people for permanent residence, while the proposed state visas would be temporary, raising the question of what happens when somebody's duration of stay ends, Gelatt said. She added that it could be difficult for the states to ensure workers return to their home countries at the end of the program or find a way to stay legally in the U.S. The proposal would also be a large expansion in the number of temporary workers admitted into the U.S., which is sure to be controversial.

"Maybe we have a smaller pilot program instead of 500,000 visas right away?" Gelatt asked. "Start with a small number and see if people stay in the states that sponsor them and how the government would even know if they stayed in those states at the end of their visa term."

Curtis said that "knowing exactly where the workers are employed" would be critical to compliance, but he wouldn't consider adding the option of workers being issued green cards or offered a path to citizenship because, he said, that "would kill my bill."

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