The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent


Two GOP Governors Endorse State-Sponsored Immigration Visas

The idea has limitations, but would be a major improvement over the status quo.


Gov. Spencer Cox (R-Utah).


In a recent Washington Post op ed, Spencer Cox and Eric Holcomb—GOP governors of Utah and Indiana, respectively—endorse the idea of giving states the power to issue their own immigration visas:

Indiana has about 220,000 open jobs right now and Utah has 107,000, according to the most recent federal data — more than 6 percent of all jobs in both states. With strong business and tax environments, we like our chances in the competition for job-seekers moving from other states. But they won't be enough to fill all of those vacancies. We also need immigrants who are ready to work and help build strong communities…

At home, we see more ordinary stories of immigrants contributing to our state economies. Julian Diaz entered the United States in search of work in the 1990s. His son Juan now employs four other Hoosiers in a successful landscaping business, while Juan's son studies computer science in college. Bassam Salem, born in Egypt, came to the United States more than 30 years ago with his parents and grew up in Utah. He eventually secured permanent residency, became a U.S. citizen and founded two successful technology start-ups that have contributed millions to the economy.

Rapidly declining birthrates and accelerating retirements across the United States mean that our states' already wide job gaps will grow to crisis proportions without more families such as these — causing our growth engines to sputter. Many of these jobs require high-level skills and entrepreneurship. But states are also awash in unfilled entry-level, low-skill roles — essential in agriculture, health care and the service industries.

So, count us as supporters of immigration sponsorship by the states. Under such authority, similar to what employers and universities have already, each state could make its own decisions. They could sponsor no visas or many visas each year, up to a limit set by Congress, for the specific sorts of jobs they need to fill.

Immigration sponsorship would give states a dynamic means to attract new residents, both from a pool of new applicants from abroad and from the ranks of current asylum seekers. The policy would also expand the states' responsibility for the contributions and success of these folks in American life.

I don't agree with everything the two governors say in their op ed. And I wish they were more clear about exactly what kind of state sponsorship system they advocate. For example, will participating immigrants be allowed to move to other states if they wish, and will they eventually be eligible for citizenship?

But it's significant that two GOP governors have endorsed this idea. Their approach is far preferable to that of many other Republicans who reflexively pander to xenephobia and seek to restrict immigration as much as possible. And I certainly agree with the bottom-line point that giving states the power to issue their own immigration visas is a good idea, and would be a major improvement over the status quo. I summarized some of the reasons why in a September 2022 post:

Both red and blue states can benefit from a policy allowing state governments to issue visas and work permits to immigrants not otherwise eligible for legal entry under federal law. State-based visas would enable state governments to take in immigrants who can fill needed slots in the economy, refugees fleeing poverty and oppression, and anyone else whom they might wish to welcome. Particularly at a time of massive labor shortages in many parts of the economy, such added migration would be a great boon to receiving states. Even some red states have recognized the need for additional immigrant labor in areas of their economies. For example, GOP members of Congress from rural states have sought to pass a bill increasing guest-worker visas for agricultural laborers….

A system under which states could grant visas without federal approval would enable them to swiftly secure as much labor as they wish – and also to help people fleeing oppression….

Conservative border states and others who seek to alleviate disorder at the border could also achieve some of their goals by such a policy. If state governments could issue their own migration, work, and refugee visas, many migrants would have no reason to cross the southern border in the first place. They could instead go directly by plane or ship to the states that grant them entry. Those that do cross the southern border would not need to do so illegally or cause any disruption. They could use legal ports of entry, and then quickly get on their way to their final destinations. Most of the disorder, violence, and death at the border is caused by the lack of legal pathways to entry, which forces people fleeing poverty and oppression into the black market. State visas could greatly mitigate that problem….

Increasing state control over immigration policy should also appeal to conservatives and others who seek a return to the original meaning of the Constitution. As James Madison, the "father of the Constitution," Thomas Jefferson, and other key Founders argued, the text and original understanding of the Constitution did not give the federal government any general power to restrict immigration. For the first hundred years of American history, immigration policy was largely under the control of the states. It may not be possible to fully restore that approach. But a system of state-issued visas would be a step in the right direction.

My 2022 post also highlights how visas issued by subnational governments have generally worked well in Australia and Canada.

Despite my general enthusiasm for state-based visas, I also noted some potential shortcomings of such a policy:

State-based visas are by no means perfect. Depending on how such a program is structured, immigrants who receive them might—at least initially—be confined to a particular state, thereby sometimes missing out on valuable job and educational opportunities. That could also reduce their potential contributions to the US economy, if a given immigrant could be most productive in a state other than the one that granted the visa. From a moral standpoint, it would be preferable to completely eliminate laws under which where people are allowed to live and work is restricted by arbitrary circumstances of parentage and place of birth.

But, as always, the best should not be the enemy of the good. For migrants fleeing poverty and oppression…, the right to live and work in even one American state would be a vast improvement over being barred from all. And pro-immigration states can further mitigate the problem by granting reciprocal access to each others' state-based visa holders.