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 policy.
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 labyrinth.
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.
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. (Canada’s federal program is a different story altogether.)
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 both.
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 federal-provincial responsibility.