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Nothing, however, prevents the U.S. government from giving states greater latitude in setting their own immigration policies. 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 certainly be free to spurn foreigners. Yet 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.
This route would go some way toward facing the illegal issue—which is wholly the result of the lack of legal avenues for low-skilled foreigners to work and gain permanent residency in the U.S. When these avenues were available under the bracero program, a guest-worker arrangement with Mexico that the U.S. 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, the states could give these 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. Canada placed caps on each province, Kurland explained, because the federal government in Ottawa was unable to quickly process applicants and avoid backlogs.
Given that the U.S. 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 final 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 U.S. doesn’t reverse course, it might lose out in the global competition for skilled labor and never solve its problem with low-skilled undocumented workers.
This column originally appeared in Bloomberg View.