Canadian federalism applied to immigration

Bloomberg has an interesting piece today arguing that Canada shows the US a way forward on immigration policy: states should be allowed to sponsor any immigrant they like. Obviously there are reasonable bounds: the Canadian federal government performs basic health and criminal background checks on prospective immigrants. But beyond that, any province of Canada can invite anyone it likes to settle in it, up to a federally-determined quota.

The appeal of this is that states which don’t want immigrants don’t have to use their quotas. An interesting question is whether immigrants might settle in another state and later on internally migrate to more restrictive states, and the piece doesn’t address this. But given that people tend not to want to immigrate to areas that demonstrate they don’t welcome immigrants, I see no reason to believe this would be a major problem.

The other main point made is that this presents a tidy solution to the problem of determining how to handle skilled versus unskilled labour: there are no guest worker visas, and rather each province invites immigrants based on its own needs. In the US case, I take this to mean that New York would probably invite plenty of high-skilled finance workers, while Idaho might invite potato farmers.

A problem I see with this is that this doesn’t consider the fact that “guest worker” situations might apply reasonably well to some people. It’s quite common to want to work in another country for a few years, without actually desiring to settle there. One could just as easily make provision for states to sponsor easily-renewable work visas, in addition to regular immigrant visas.

In spite of this, it seems to me that Canada is on the right track: giving provinces a stake in immigration policy gives their governments additional levers to pull to support their economic and social progress. While the federal model may not work for all countries, those organised under a federal system of government should at least consider adoption of the Canadian model of state-sponsored immigration.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


8 thoughts on “Canadian federalism applied to immigration”

  1. Given that there’s a federally imposed quota, maybe immigrants switching states won’t be a big problem there, but it would be a big problem if, say, a US state wanted to adopt open borders. Unless, of course, internal open borders were burdened with some sort of visa checks. Hawaii is an interesting case here. Suppose Hawaii let the US check passports on flights to the mainland, then opened its borders. Hawaiian citizens would be US citizens and could travel to the mainland at will, albeit with passports, but foreigners could go to Hawaii and work. The Hawaiian economy would boom, land values would soar, it might get a competitive edge vis-a-vis Florida in the retiree business…

    1. Traveling between Hong Kong and the rest of China does actually require a visa check, and at least this instance of internal border enforcement clearly does serve a useful function.

      It seems pretty difficult to introduce an internal border check when one previously doesn’t exist, though; either a whole bunch of people can move across the border right before the new check comes into effect, with disruptive effects, or some key aspects of the law depend on state of residence on/before the law’s public announcement, which violates peacetime sense of fairness. But I’m definitely a fan of controlled experimentation with different immigration policies.

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