A Federalist Approach to Immigration Reform

Immigration policy reform has been a subject of much debate in the United States for many years. The range of opinions has included those who want a more open border policy and those who want a much more restrictive policy. The arguments over how to deal with those living here illegally have been fierce.

A possible way out of the stalemate on immigration policy reform is to utilize a federalist approach, which would allow state-­based visa programs to direct immigrants to states and localities that want them. This idea has been pushed forward recently by Brandon Fuller and Sean Rust with the Cato Institute (“State­-Based Visa”), as well as Governor Rick Snyder (R-­MI) and Senator Rand Paul (R-­KY). There is much to recommend this policy prescriptive.

Article I, section 8, clause 4, gives the Congress the power “To establish a uniform Rule of Naturalization.” This allows states to be involved in areas outside of naturalization, including state­-based visa programs within guidelines drawn up by the federal government.

States are better positioned to know what type of workers are needed for their economies and to monitor compliance with the rules they set forth. States that do not want additional immigrants can refuse participation in the program and will be minimally impacted by other states’ participation. States that wish to reap the benefits on real wages and entrepreneurship from immigration should not be hamstrung by those that are more concerned with enforcement and impacts on local public services.

State­-based visa programs would also provide a systematic method of dealing with undocumented immigrants already in the United States. States could include these people already residing within their borders and those in other states. In addition, cooperation between states could be enhanced through voluntary agreements covering agricultural workers (who are mobile due to the seasonal demand for their services) so that movement between states would be facilitated.

Similar regional immigration policies in Canada and Australia show that a state­-based policy in the United States can be successful. An evaluation of the Canadian program concluded that the program was a success and should be continued. Similarly, a survey of the Australian program concluded that immigrants and employers rated the program as a success.

Enforceability of state-­based visas is made easier by offering a path to permanent residency that would be forfeited if the state designed conditions were violated. The increase in lawful opportunities for immigrants through state­-based visas instead of employment-­based visas would offer more freedom of choice and increase the chances of a successful program.

While the federal government would retain jurisdiction over naturalization, states are much better positioned than Washington to determine the economic demand for immigrants and the numbers and skills that are needed. Also, states are better able to mitigate any adverse consequences from immigration and to enlist and maintain public support.

A further step that would help advance immigration policy reform would be to shift responsibility to states and localities for expenditures on welfare, education, and other public services. A one­-size-­fits-­all, top-down policy from Washington is not the best option on this issue (or any other) and is not in accord with the vision of our nation’s founders, as set forth in the U.S. Constitution and the federal system it established.

—Ken Hamilton

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