Monday, May 09, 2011

Subnational Immigration Policy

Before the late 19th-century, the United States didn't have a federal immigration policy. The political and social technologies of the modern nation-state developed during the same time period. That's no coincidence. A new book, “A Nation of Immigrants”, posits an intriguing pre-national policy geography:

Three competing models evolved in the original colonies, [author Susan F. Martin] writes, each with a different vision of what purposes newcomers would serve. Elements of each have persisted since.

Virginia sought workers but found them in slaves.

Massachusetts sought believers but punished dissent.

Pennsylvania sought citizens, and built them from foreign stock (despite gripes from residents as cosmopolitan as Benjamin Franklin).

You won't find anyone espousing constitutional orthodoxy (a literal reading not unlike some Protestant interpretations of the Bible) clamoring for a decentralization of border control. That's because these self-taught historians know little about state building and too much about nationalist mythology. Guarding the country's frontier, in terms of immigration, was not part of the original contract.

How we understand the border today is the product of about 150 years of Supreme Court debate about the relationship between executive power and sovereign territory. Both immigration and citizenship law are ever-changing. That is to say, getting back to the roots of the Constitution would mean Pennsylvania regulating the movement of foreign nationals as it sees fit.

During the era of the modern nation-state, such considerations were impractical. The freedom of movement between the individual states would impose the most liberal regime on the entire country. That's not necessarily the case today, as recent anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona suggests.

I think we should embrace the anti-federalist mood swing. Allow states such as Pennsylvania to embrace talent immigration as each sees fit. Better yet, let cities decide. H-1B visas effectively tie foreign born labor to the employer through sponsorship. Municipalities could act in the same capacity, making the visa contingent on urban residence and site of work. Various schemes could be concocted to enhance geographic mobility. Green cards would issued after a few years, well before the end of the federal queue.

The federal government would still play a role. In order to be eligible for this program, you must matriculate at a US college or university and graduate from one of those institutions. The student visa rules remain as they are. That way, immigrants elect to enter the system and pass muster with whatever litmus test the United States deems necessary.

Of course, I'd welcome the kind of policy reform that Vivek Wadhwa is advocating. However, I think it unlikely to survive congressional debate. Let the foreign born talent pool where it is most welcome, in the cities.

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