Immigration Policy: Is Federalism the Answer?

For those of us tracking immigration policy, the shift is undeniable. With President Obama recently pointing out just how gridlocked a once-promising bipartisan Senate immigration proposal has become, cities and states have become the new immigration-policy innovators. They are filling the void.

U.S. immigration policy has been the purview of the federal government for more than a century. But it was not always that way. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, individual states had their own immigration laws. States typically sought to regulate immigrant influxes with policies that reflected particular concern about the arrival of poor European newcomers. Now, immigration policy is, in some ways, returning to its roots.

Increasingly, places that want to put out the welcome mat and encourage entrepreneurial activity are sharing ideas. And as a quick federal fix to immigration policy looks like a long shot, local and state proposals are gaining traction.

In perhaps the most well-known current example of state-level immigration strategy, Michigan’s Republican governor, Rick Snyder, proposed in January bringing 50,000 immigrants to Detroit over five years through a visa program aimed at immigrants with advanced degrees or exceptional abilities in science, business, or the arts. These immigrants would have to live and work in the struggling city.

Detroit, a city that lost about 237,500 residents—a full quarter of its population—between 2000 and 2010 alone, needs people. The hope is that immigrant newcomers will occupy empty residential blocks, launch small businesses, and fill both high- and low-skill job niches.

Perhaps that’s why Snyder’s proposal has been endorsed by conservative think tanks and newspapers. But given congressional control over immigration policy, it looks unlikely to become law in the near future.

Nevertheless, Snyder’s proposal ranks among a growing list of ideas emanating from states and cities seeking ways to manage immigration. In 2013, there was a 64 percent increase in proposed or enacted state laws dealing with immigration, compared with 2012. And that increase follows a doubling of state immigration legislation between 2006 and 2010. Moreover, these initiatives reflect a shift from those focused on immigration enforcement and deflecting immigrants to those that expand state benefits such as extending driver’s license eligibility and in-state tuition to unauthorized residents.

In the latest state attempt to work around the federal stalemate, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick unveiled the Global Entrepreneur Program that recruits foreign students to stay and work on new start-ups in the state. It exploits an existing loophole in the federal H-1B visa program.

State laws can make a difference in the lives of immigrants and their families. In late 2013, California approved the “Trust Act,” which directs state law enforcement to expedite the release of detained unauthorized immigrants after they are determined not to have serious criminal records rather than quickly turn them over to federal officials, who can deport them. Implemented in January, the law has already slowed the rate of deportations in California by 44 percent, according to an Associated Press analysis.

To craft effective policies, communities must understand the drivers that direct immigrants to certain towns or regions. This is easier said than done.

About a decade ago, the Abell Foundation studied the issue for Baltimore and found, “The few comparable cities that reversed their population decline through immigration did not plan their success.” Today’s immigration is driven by a variety of factors. Recent research released by Bread for the World Institute on “blue-collar” immigrants in Baltimore and Detroit provides some clues about what attracts working-class immigrants to cities.

While a reputation as an immigrant-friendly city can’t hurt, lower-skilled immigrants who are helping revitalize these cities tend to select a new city to call home based on three primary factors: low housing costs, a plentiful manual-labor job market, and family connections.

As one Baltimore-area construction company owner who observed the increase in Latino immigration noted, “Rent was cheap, and the work was there; that’s really the bottom line.”

Family and community connections are also important. Once an immigrant has settled in a U.S. city, it’s a safe bet that if others from that person’s region, village, or family decide to migrate, they will begin that journey in cities where they know people who can help them find housing or offer them a place to stay, connect them with jobs, and explain the way things work in their new home.

Municipalities with large and diverse immigrant populations such as New York are leading the way when it comes to taking economic drivers into account. Its blueprint for immigrant integration includes assistance for immigrant entrepreneurs and employment services for underemployed immigrants with in-demand skills. These practical programs align with most immigrants’ primary goal—economic advancement—which can also potentially contribute to a city’s economic development.

But whatever the configuration of state and municipal immigrant-attraction strategies, they are not a substitute for federal legislative action. It is federal, not state or local, policy that controls the laws that allow immigrants to enter the country to live and work. As long as immigration reform remains stuck in Congress, states and cities will continue to generate new policies, for better or for worse.

This piece was originally published by The National Journal’s Next America Project.