Thoughts on State-Based Immigration Reform

Yesterday the Cato Institute ran an event discussing a state-based approach reform with panelists Brandon Fuller (NYU Stern Urbanization Project), Reihan Salam (National Review Institute), Shikha Dalmia and moderated by Alex Nowrasteh (Cato Institute). The archived video can be found here. Regional based migration reform has been discussed previously on this blog including a discussion of Canada’s federal approach to immigration.

I must admit that I was disappointed in how the discussion developed. The panelists focused on concerns by Salam that a state-based migration system would essentially turn migrants into serfs tied to their employers. I would have preferred it if the discussion focused actions already taken by US states as it would show that Salam’s fears are unfounded.

Take for example the situation in California. Anti-migrant hysteria reached its peak in the early 90s when Proposition 187 passed and attempted to limit public services available to illegal aliens and increase domestic enforcement. Oddly enough public backlash due to the proposition lead to migrant communities, legal and illegal, to become more politically active and turn California into a sanctuary state for migrants. Last year the TRUST Act, which limits the local police forces from cooperating with federal immigration authorities unless the migrant is a violent offender or otherwise commits a major crime, was passed and signed into law by Governor Brown.  Driving licenses were also approved by the state legislature and will become available for illegal aliens in the golden state in early 2015. The California Dream Act grants state funding for those illegal aliens brought to the state as minors. At one point the state legislature even considered a bill that would grant work permits to illegal aliens working in certain sectors such as the restaurant service industry. At no point is anyone being tied to their employer.

It is true that some states have used their discretion to pass anti-migrant legislation but they’ve failed horribly. In Alabama anti-migrant state laws lead to an embarrassing incident where a Mercedes-Benz executive was locked up in jail for a minor traffic accident.  Arizona is struggling to change its public perception to appear pro-migrant after the fiasco of the Arizona Senate Bill 1070 lead to the exodus of migrants from the state and painted the copper state as bad for foreign investment. Even under the strictest state immigration policies no one is being forced into serfdom though, migrants always have the option to return home or migrate to a third country with more favorable policies. In order for Salam’s fears of serfdom to materialize migrants must be prohibited from leaving.

Some states, like Utah, have taken a middle ground by passing anti-migrant legislation similar to the Arizona bill but also passing a guest worker visa (HB 116) that would invite further migrants to the state and provide work permits for the illegal aliens already present.  The Utah bill asks that work permit holders attempt to learn English to the best of their ability, to acquire a driving license if they intend to drive in Utah, and to have health insurance unless they can prove they are not at risk of becoming a public charge. The worker permit is fully portable and can be used to work within the entire state – it even allows for permit holders to do some contract work for the state.

Salam did have a point when he brought up that some provinces in Canada were generous when it came to sponsoring migrants but failed to retain them. This is not however an argument against state based migration as it only shows that favorable immigration policies are an insufficient condition for economic prosperity if a region does not also adopt conditions favorable to growth. Easing migration policies might help cities like Detroit, but would need to be accompanied by real reforms to how they are run. In this sense pro-migrant state policies act partially as a signal that a region is serious about reforming itself.

What I truly wish the discussion would have covered is the situation in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNM). The Northern Mariana Islands are a collection of islands in the Pacific that have been held by the Spanish, Germans, and Japanese before ultimately falling in American hands following the conclusion of WW2. Instead of seeking independence the Northern Mariana islands entered into political union with the United States as a commonwealth, similar to Puerto Rico’s status. Natives of the Northern Mariana Islands possess US Citizenship and have a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. When the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands joined the US they retained some powers, including the ability to settle its own migration policy independent of federal authorities. The Northern Mariana Islands used this to create a worker program to allow migrants from neighboring regions to come and provide much needed labor for the tourism and light industry sectors. The Northern Mariana Islands proved an attractive place for business as it had access to US markets, but labor costs were cheap.

In 2008 however federal authorities decided to revoke the Northern Mariana Islands’ regional migration policy with the passage of the Consolidated Natural Resources Act of 2008, which ‘federalized’ the commonwealth’s immigration system. Federal authorities and proponents of the federal take over of the commonwealth’s immigration system argued that labor conditions for migrants were poor since the CNM was exempt from the federal minimum wage. What proponents failed to realize was that migrants to the Northern Mariana Islands, which are overwhelming low skilled, were better off under such conditions than their alternatives. It is doubtful that the low-skilled workers who arrived in the CNM would have been able to migrate at all under the US’ federal immigration system.

The federal take over of the CNM’s migration system lead to a legal nightmare where many migrant workers found themselves in a limbo where they had fallen out of status through no fault of their own. At the same time economic conditions deteriorated as the islands felt the impact of the US recession.  The harm that federalization of the CNM’s migration system can be seen in its population alone. At its height the islands had a population of 70,000 but has slumped down to 50,000 (a reduction of 28.6%) after many of its workers left due to the reverse in migration policy and an economic recession worsened by the decrease in labor.

The Northern Mariana Islands are trying to do their best to handle the situation, but unfortunately are unable to do so without federal changes to the migration system.  Some pro-migrant groups are calling for a day of action on March 27 to urge temporary protected status (a status that allows migrants, regardless of current status, to remain and work in the US) to be extended to the estimated 200,000 pacific islanders residing in the United States, including those in the Northern Mariana Islands, who find themselves in this legal limbo.

The Northern Mariana Islands provide a prime example that a regional migration system can work if not hindered by federal policies but has thus far been largely ignored. With any luck further thought is put onto the issue of state-based immigration reform.

Michelangelo Landgrave

Michelangelo Landgrave is an economics graduate student at California State University, Long Beach.

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