GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The frustration with the failure of Congress to tackle immigration reform has prompted some observers to suggest that states look north for inspiration.
At the recent annual meeting of the State Policy Network, experts from Americans for Tax Reform, the Reason Foundation, and the Niskanen Center suggested that states push for adopting a Canadian model, which shifts authority for some immigration policies to the state level.
Under the program, the U.S. federal government would still set some basic immigration policy, such as running background checks on applicants. But states would be given leeway in issuing visas and determining how many immigrants would qualify for work permits over certain time periods.
N.C. Rep. Harry Warren, R-Rowan, who has sponsored a number of pieces of immigration-related legislation in the N.C. House, was unaware of the proposal but intrigued by it.
“I’d sure like to look into it a little further to see if there’s something I can glean [from] it that might be helpful,” Warren said.
Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst at the libertarian Reason Foundation, said that comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level is dead for the foreseeable future. “Basically, the reason is, no one trusts Washington,” she said during the meeting of the State Policy Network, an association of nonprofit think tanks and advocacy groups that work for policy changes at the state level. The John Locke Foundation is a member of SPN.
“We’ve messed up for the last 15 years at the federal level on immigration,” said Alex Nowrasteh, immigration policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute.
Dalmia said that currently the federal government isn’t issuing enough visas to meet the demand for workers from other countries, leaving a gap. The gap breeds shortages, resulting in lawlessness at the U.S.-Mexican border, she said.
While the United States has focused on combating illegal immigration, Canada, instead has emphasized the methods used by its provinces (analogous to U.S. states) recruit the immigrants with skills that they want to recruit.
“We have started regarding immigrants as enemies,” Dalmia said, noting that federal and state governments have instituted or called for programs requiring electronic verification of employee immigration status at hiring, border fences, and other security measures.
In Canada, provinces that don’t want immigrants can turn them away, Dalmia said. But doing so imposes a risk that companies may not wish to locate in those provinces, she said. Controlling the number of immigrants admitted at the province level allows those units of government to guard against unexpected drains on public services.
Dalmia suggested that if the United States adopted a similar policy, it would turn “states into laboratories of democracy.” States might converge on immigration policy, but such a move would be voluntary. A shift in policy in that direction would put Uncle Sam in a limited but defined space, she said.
David Bier, immigration policy analyst with the Niskanen Center, another libertarian think tank, agreed the federal government would retain important roles in a decentralized system, such as doing background checks on people applying for visas and deciding when applicants become citizens. He said legislation would be necessary at the federal level to authorize states to bring foreign workers into their states.
Originally, Bier suggested states would have a low cap, perhaps 5,000 a year, with the number growing over time. Under this model states would have the option to expand the number of visas they issue by 10 percent a year so long as they could verify that at least 97 percent of the workers who received permits complied with all the legal requirements of their visas.
Bier said he is attempting to recruit a sponsor to introduce such a program at the federal level, and is approaching officials at the state level to garner interest.
Warren said he did not think the federal government is capable of getting a handle on the 11 million to 12 million people in the country illegally.
“You’re going to have to break it down into bite-sized steps,” Warren said. He said that governments would have to get a handle on how many unauthorized immigrants are in each state, who those illegal immigrants are, and where they live.
Warren said the immigration debate has become emotional, noting that he’s faced opposition to attempts to allow such immigrants the opportunity to get a restricted identity documents card or limited work permits.
Warren added that he expects any new federal policies on immigration are likely to come with enforcement and implementation requirements that will fall to the states.
“It’s going to be interesting to see with this presidential election coming what and how the candidates address this issue,” Warren said.
Barry Smith (@Barry_Smith) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.