For the past decade, presidents from both parties have been trying to reform America’s immigration policies, only to be repeatedly tripped up. Congress balked at both George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s attempts at immigration reform, and illegal immigration played a key role in the election of Donald Trump.
But what if we’ve been going about immigration reform the wrong way? What if the mistake was that we made it a one-size-fits-all policy created in Washington D.C.? What if instead we put the states in the lead?
That’s what Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) and Congressman Ken Buck (R-Colorado) want to do: create a program that would put states in charge of issuing visas to would-be immigrants. The logic is that states are in a better condition to assess local economic conditions than the federal government. For example, a state that has a shortage of workers could issue more guest worker visas, while one with high unemployment could reduce them.
Johnson and Buck’s bill would set some requirements for the would-be immigrants. They would be barred from accessing most welfare programs and states would be responsible for enforcing those bans. Unlike other guest worker programs, the immigrants would be allowed to change jobs in order to guard against employer exploitation.
But beyond those few stipulations, the states would be allowed to set their own policies. They could decide to mandate that guest workers are paid the prevailing wage or not. They could decide to grant guest worker permits to illegal immigrants and confer upon them legal status.
For his part, Senator Ron Johnson understands that border security and immigration reform mean more than building a wall and mass deportations. It’s about streamlining the legal immigration process. “My concept of border security includes a robust guest-worker program,” Johnson told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s going to be a whole lot easier to secure the border when you’re not having to clamp down on people coming here to seek the opportunities that America provides.”
The Constitution grants sole authority over immigration to Congress. But there is nothing in the Constitution that would prevent Congress from creating a guest worker program run by the states.
The biggest hurdle to this problem is political. Republican voters have become anti-immigrant and increasingly see any immigration as a bad thing. They will criticize this bill as a “globalist scheme.” Meanwhile, Democrats are likely to balk at giving state governments more power at the expense of the federal government.
But the Johnson-Buck proposal is nonetheless one Congress should adopt. After years of abortive efforts, here at last is immigration reform that deserves to be passed.