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Cities should manage immigration (not nations)
The Heartland Visa wants to make that happen.
Only a couple generations ago, Sutera was a picture-perfect village dotting the Italian countryside, but like many quaint Italian villages, it was abandoned by younger generations for bigger cities with jobs and income potential. Pretty soon it was a ghost town. By 2016, Sutera was down to only a thousand elderly residents and the bones of two dead saints. Only six children attended the school.
Then a migrant boat tipped over on the Mediterranean and the government wondered if Sutera could bury the dead. They couldn’t—their cemeteries were full—but their houses were empty so Mayor Giuseppe Grizzanti came up with a better idea: He invited 200 migrants into the town.
Suddenly empty houses were filled, the schoolroom had children in it, and there were jobs needed in the form of butchers and grocers and bartenders. The town felt more alive, elderly residents sipped coffee with their new neighbors as they shared each other’s languages, and an annual “festival of hospitality” celebrated the unique cultures who have made Sutera—which means “salvation”—their home.
And this in a country that is openly hostile to immigrants.
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it’s not just the Italian countryside at risk of becoming a ghost town. Just like in Europe, US workers are moving to the cities, leaving 80% of the country in population decline and even less likely to host the next generation of jobs and workers. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to cities emptied of all but a few elderly residents and a bunch of graveyards.
Right now, cities don’t have a choice when it comes to immigration—that happens on a national level where it remains mired in ideological gridlock. Some places would love to invite more people in, some places wouldn’t, and that depends highly on whether they have the infrastructure (and desire) to accommodate them.
The result is that the nation can’t make immigration decisions that would affect everyone, but cities could. Especially cities that are rapidly shrinking and could desperately use a population boost, like St. Louis, Buffalo, and Cleveland, as well as the below counties in orange and red.
“These are places that, in principle, shouldn’t be as distressed as they are. St. Louis is 30% to 40% the size it was in 1950, but its road system and sewer system and universities have not scaled down at all,” Connor O’Brien, author of Regions and research associate at the Economic Innovation Group told me. “They already have the infrastructure, in theory, to absorb huge numbers of people. If they just had access to a little bit more talent maybe they could take off and be the kind of places they were 100 years ago.”
O’Brien’s team is working on the Heartland Visa, a program that aims to see immigration happen on a local level rather than a national level—specifically counties. If counties had the autonomy to decide whether or not they want to opt into the Heartland Visa, skilled workers who apply for the visa could then choose from those locations to work and live.
“The idea is that communities should be able to opt into supplemental flows of high-skilled immigrants. Even below the state level, county governments can choose to turn on the tap of folks coming in. Counties opt-in and migrants choose among the places that have opted in, and if people live in these communities for a certain number of years they get a super expedited path to permanent residency and ultimately, they can live wherever they want after a few years.”
States have long wanted autonomy over immigration. Two years ago, when President Biden pulled US forces out of Afghanistan, Governor Spencer Cox wrote him a letter letting him know that Utah would happily take in any refugees displaced by the event.
“I recognize Utah plays no direct role in shaping US diplomatic or military policy,” he wrote, “but we have a long history of welcoming refugees from around the world and helping them restart their lives in a new country.”
He’s right. In the past 20 years, several US states (including Republican ones like Utah and Texas and Florida) have enacted legislation to make immigration happen at the state level. They need workers!
“The federal program is restrictive, overly bureaucratic, and fails to effectively or efficiently respond to specific state labor shortages,” one report noted. “To facilitate a more efficient response to the demands of local businesses for temporary workers, 13 states proposed measures that would provide them with local control over federal guest worker visa decisions.”
Guest visas were their solution.
“State-based guest worker reform programs allow governors and state legislatures to utilize visas as part of their own legislative toolkit to improve economic growth, add jobs, bolster population growth, revitalize crumbling cities, and target certain sectors for enhanced labor reliability… State-based guest worker programs provide options for states to tailor visas to promote growth in their state and meet the needs of specific sectors.
“For example, California may prefer to use more agricultural, seasonal workers to work in fields, whereas Wisconsin may prefer fewer, longer-term, more experienced nonagricultural workers to work on dairy farms. By tailoring immigration policies to each state’s unique needs, their local economies can operate more efficiently. In fact, we see those outcomes in both Canada and Australia who rely on similar federalist programs with success.”
Though these initiatives all passed (and remain on the books if Congress ever gives state-based immigration the green light) they were ultimately staunched by the federal government. In 2011, the Department of Justice even threatened a lawsuit against Utah for its guest worker program on the grounds that it offered work permits to undocumented immigrants and even sheltered them from deportation.
“That many of these proposals failed is not evidence of low political demand or the technical infeasibility of state-based solutions,” the report concludes. “It is evidence of the urgent need for federal consent and cooperation. If there had been greater federal cooperation, not only would more of these proposals have passed, more states would have introduced proposals.”
In other words, local immigration could work, but it needs the federal government’s sign-off to make it happen. “The constitution explicitly gives Congress authority over immigration policy,” O’Brien says. “Unless Congress can delegate authority to local governments, there isn't that much they can do. And Congress is very hesitant to devolve its own powers to lower levels of government.”
If Congress hasn’t been open to state-based immigration initiatives in the past,, a senior immigration fellow at the , is decidedly more optimistic that they might approve a county-based one.
“It prevents a lot of immigrants from going to communities that don't want immigrants, so maybe it would alleviate some of the concerns from people whose constituencies wouldn't opt into the program,” he told me. “It also creates opportunities for Republican lawmakers to benefit from immigration. They know that if they pass a bill like this their own regions might be rejuvenated and re-energized by immigrants because they won’t all be going to New York City or San Francisco. They might be able to address the kinds of worker shortages that they care about in a more targeted way.”
He also thinks there are ways local governments can do a lot more with the existing immigration pathways we do have. “We have a couple of uncapped programs: The 0-1 Visa is totally uncapped, the J-1 is uncapped, and the H-1B has an uncapped section,” he says. “And there's a lot of discretion at the agency level to expand the eligibility of these visas and market them to people who don't know that they're eligible for them.”
For example: “The way to be exempt from the cap on the H-1B program is to work for a university, an affiliated organization, a nonprofit research institution, or a government research organization. That sounds pretty restrictive, but one of the things people have started to figure out is that someone could spend five hours of their time lecturing students, but then most of the time they're building a company or working at a for-profit company. That could be sufficient for them to get a cap-exempt H-1B visa.”
He’s talking about the International Entrepreneur Rule, in which universities can leverage their state-school systems and effectively become “visa printing machines.”
“The most recent California budget included a line item to build out their Global Entrepreneur in Residence program, which is designed to use their cap-exempt H-1B visas to bring in entrepreneurs,” Neufeld says. “And you could imagine that a state could decide to do that at a bigger scale. Instead of the universities hiring them directly, they could partner with an outside organization who could have a profit-sharing agreement in place.”
“It's bold and complicated at the start, which is why only a handful of cities are using it so far,” O’Brien says. “But universities can really help build local clusters of startups themselves using this tool.”
And there are plenty of people around the world who would happily take advantage of it. In the past 10 years, 33 million refugees have been granted residency in another country, with 7.5 million moving to the EU and less than half a million moving to the US. Why are more refugees being admitted to Europe than the US? It’s not because it has a better immigration policy but because it has a localized one—Germany and Sweden received the bulk of those immigrants while countries like Italy continue to shut them out altogether.
As a whole, the US hasn’t been able to enact an immigration policy that works for everyone, but cities could choose whether they want to become a bustling economy like Germany or a drastically depopulated one like Italy—and maybe the federal government will go for that.
Some cities won’t let anyone in, but some will. Just like Sutera. And that will be much better for the country than what we’re doing now.
But I’d love to know your thoughts.
As always, thank you for reading!
Here are some of the articles I loved during my research:
“Europe’s Coming Reckoning on Immigration” by Foreign Policy
“‘They are our salvation’: the Sicilian town revived by refugees” by The Guardian