Saturday, May 28, 2011

The problems with sub-national immigration policies

Earlier this month, the Burgh Diaspora reflected on the history of immigration to the United States, the variant forms of immigration sought by different states, the tensions between different American states over differing attitudes towards immigration and immigrants, and made a proposal: why not let subnational entities control their own immigration policies?

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.

This does make a certain amount of sense. In the realm of actually existing subnational immigration policies, I'm most familiar with that of Québec, where--as I wrote in June of last year--concerns over the growth of English led to the adoption of a policy explicitly favouring Francophone and French-leaning immigrants over others (French and Senegalese and Congolese versus Britons and Indians and Guyanese, say). This shift has arguably made immigration more popular in Québec, removing the fears of language shift from French, and has the potential to provide Québec with the workers--including skilled workers--that it will need as the provincial population ages. The rest of Canada obviously doesn't share the priorities of Québec and wouldn't be as responsive to local concerns. So, inasmuch as the subnational jurisdiction of Québec's control over immigration policies go, it seems a relative success.

The problems with sub-national immigration policies? Immigrants don't necessarily fit the slots allotted to them. As I noted above, the gap between immigrant and native-born wages in Québec is even worse than in the rest of Canada, a product of many things including the non-recognition of skilled workers and difficulties with social integration. In many cases, it's not especially clear that local control over immigration would be an improvement.

The second problem is that of mobility. For municipalities to have control over immigration, as the above blog goes on to sugget, strikes me as a very bad policy move. Immigrants have to be mobile, geographically as well as socially, and a municipality doesn't necessarily offer sufficient scope. In Québec the overwhelming majority of immigrants may be concentrated in Montréal, but this isn't because they're forced to live there. Rather, immigrants are concentrated in Montréal because that's where immigrant communities have formed neighbourhoods, dense social networks, and the like. Restrictions on mobility are especially problematic if--as some propose--immigrants are assigned residences in hinterlands in an effort to try to boost stagnant or declining populations. The waste of potential in those cases is arguably as much a moral problem as an economic one.

Finally, there's the question of whether immigrants will stay in their localities once probationary periods are up. My native Prince Edward Island has an immigrant retention rate of 25%; for cited reasons of wages (the poorest province in Canada) and social integration, most immigrants do not stay. Many sub-national jurisdictions may not keep as many immigrants as planned--in Canada, the differences between the have and have-not provinces on this metric is notable.

In conclusion? Sub-national immigration may be a useful idea, but it's one that definitely has its serious issues. It may produce short-term gains, but those gains can quickly be dissipated with bad planning and bad underlying conditions. Beware.


Colin Reid said...

There's probably a lot to be learned from Europe, where there is a complex interaction between national immigration policies (often a mess as a result of frequent populist meddling) and the freedom of movement rights established by treaty. See for instance the recent row between France and Italy over Tunisian refugees, France's expulsion of Roma to their countries of origin within the EU, or the 'love bridge' between Denmark and Sweden.

Anonymous said...

Or the Dutch Somalies in London

Jim Russell said...

I don't see a problem with the geographic mobility restriction. In the States, refugees reside in preset locations. Minneapolis has benefited greatly from this influx of immigrants. And the patterns of chain migration and established gateway cities serve as a de facto restriction.

The more important issue is that of liberalizing immigration law. Metros tend to be pro-immigration. But the rest of the country trumps that attitude. Thus, talent that would like to come is denied entry. To me, that restriction of mobility is much more troubling.

Randy McDonald said...

But the paths of chain migration tend to lead towards the sorts of metropolitan centres that have a certain amount of size already.

De facto limitations--the existing network of diasporas--are qualitatively different from de jure ones.

I would argue that subnational polities are more inclined than national ones to view immigration as a way to bolster problematic local demographics. Here in Canada, for instance, people have suggested establishing quotas for immigrants to head to Atlantic Canada, while Bloomberg has talked about Detroit. It's not likely that this immigration will make things better; local economic problems will remain the same, and immigrant human capital will be wasted.

Using cities as frameworks doesn't strike me as a good idea. Does the infrastructure exist? And what are the boundaries? Setting up an immigration territory for the City of Toronto may not be a good idea given the city's integration with the rest of the GTA. Where do you draw the boundaries? How do you enforce these multimunicipal territories?

Jim Russell said...

Detroit is already a gateway city. Currently, immigration benefits a number of demographically challenged cities. Even cities doing "well" tend to channel immigrants into neighborhoods that won't (in theory) make best use of human capital.

That this talent would be wasted in certain places is speculative. Quite frankly, I don't see any evidence in support of such a conclusion. I can think of many examples in the States that suggest the opposite to be the case.

Furthermore, legacy migrations aren't efficient. Piling into a gateway city with relatively high unemployment is a recipe for unrest. Meanwhile, there are cities with talent shortages that are off the map for immigrants.

As for the policy geography, the infrastructure does exist. For example, see student visas. Typically, the student is tied to the university sponsoring entry. Employment (e.g. H-1B) operates in a similar fashion. Both universities and businesses benefit greatly from the arrangement. My main fear is that the labor is too captive in these situations.

Lastly, I focus on immigrants already admitted. The national policy regime has done its job. I would offer expedited citizenship for certain locations. Again, this isn't novel (see EB-5 visas). Perhaps there isn't anything analogous in Canada. But that doesn't mean the policy can't work there.

Scott said...

If a region has fundamentally poor economic factors (natural resources, location in trade network, remoteness from existing population centers); migration policy will be a non-factor at best.

Jim Russell said...


I don't understand the rationale. I can appreciate how talent might be better placed in Toronto instead of Halifax. However, that doesn't mean that more immigration wouldn't benefit Halifax or Winnipeg:

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