Two years ago this week the Senate passed the biggest immigration overhaul in 50 years (S. 744). The House and Senate failed to resolve their differences, however, and the reform effort died.
Following this episode, some advocates of reform, disenfranchised due to repeated failed debates on the topic, looked for new ways to achieve progress on the immigration front. One idea that has won support from politicians, the popular press, and think-tank experts is state-based visa reform.
What was once an idea floating around obscure legal journals in the past two decades is now making waves in the California and Texas state legislatures. City Journal, the Cato Institute, the Economist, Foreign Affairs, City Lab, and Next City have all discussed it. Senator Rand Paul and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder have come out in support of it. I wrote my senior thesis at Hofstra University on the topic as well.
Last week Cato’s Alex Nowrasteh reported on the progress of state-based reform in California. Earlier in June the California Assembly approved Bill 20, which would offer undocumented workers living in California the opportunity to work legally in the state. It would create the nation’s first pilot program for state-based visas. The bill passed with bipartisan support, 69 to 2, and was sent to the state senate.
Assembly member Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) authored the bill, which would require President Obama’s okay for it to be implemented. Alejo explained, “If California wants change in immigration policy, we as state officials must stand up and lead.”
Alejo’s press release notes that California’s agricultural industry relies on undocumented labor more heavily than any other state. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that at least half of the agricultural workforce is made up of undocumented immigrants. Placing undocumented workers into a legal guest-worker system would benefits the immigrants and allow the prices of products to remain low.
In other states, such as Texas, Utah, and Massachusetts, measures have been proposed for a larger role in immigrant-admissions policy. If each state could make immigration policy for itself, we might see the large-scale immigration reform that has been difficult to achieve on the national level.
The notion of states leading on immigration reform in the face of a stagnant federal government is not new. In 2013 the number of proposed state immigration laws increased 64 percent over the year before. That increase followed a doubling of proposed such laws between 2006 and 2010. States and localities have stepped in to pass either restrictive or sanctuary laws along with several proposed worker programs.
After the last failed reform effort in 2007, several states moved forward with bills asking the federal government for permission to establish their own worker programs. Georgia’s and Colorado’s legislatures both passed resolutions, while Utah passed a pilot worker program that was never implemented because of federal restrictions.
Several other states, including Arizona, Kansas, and Oklahoma, proposed similar legislation. Kansas’s agriculture secretary went so far as to lobby the Obama administration for a waiver of federal restrictions.
Some may view state-based guest-worker programs as a practical nightmare. But both Canada and Australia have used the state-based model and seen great success. In Canada each province markets its guest-worker program to the needs of the local economy. Allowing federalism in immigration policy would prompt states to compete economically.
Even if the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform on the national level improve, offering states the opportunity to craft guest-worker programs or some level of immigrant admissions could be politically feasible and highly successful. The progress on the national level and the options for states offers a two-tier opportunity for immigration-reform advocates.
California’s guest-worker program may be the next major step in overhauling U.S. immigration law.