U.S. Lawmakers Exploring Regional Visa Programs to Boost Economy

Feb. 26, 2021, 11:16 AM

U.S. lawmakers are exploring potential visa programs that would pair skilled workers with communities in need of economic development in response to a growing gap between local markets and sustainable worker populations.

While some economists say this kind of targeted approach for local regions is the kick start they need in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, others argue that federal agencies are least equipped with prescribing remedies for local and regional workforce demands.

Though there’s still a long road to implementation for these new kinds of visa programs, Democrats in both chambers and President Joe Biden have signaled support for such reforms, both in proposed legislation and in a recent House hearing.

Similar worker-attraction initiatives have also taken hold at the city and state level. Vermont, Maine, and Tulsa, Okla., among other localities, have put in place “pay to move” deals over the last few years in the hopes of drawing young workers to help offset aging populations.

“All of the demographics have been accelerated by Covid-19. We went from being a young and dynamic workforce not that long ago to one where we’re seeing a rapid aging and slow-growing population,” said John Lettieri, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Innovation Group. “That’s already affecting struggling places.”

Lettieri said there are few better levers the government can pull, in terms of policy, to counteract that trend than targeted immigration. “It is as close to a no-brainer as it gets in terms of the benefits you can derive economically.”

But not all are convinced that these programs are the solution to regional communities’ economic woes. “I don’t think you want a system that has federal officials in Washington dictating what happens in different parts of labor markets in different parts of the country,” said Norbert Michel, the director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis. “That doesn’t seem like a smart approach to me.”

A Local Approach

At least two plans for a local approach to employment visas are circulating on Capitol Hill.

The recently introduced U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, co-sponsored by 26 Democratic senators and 80 representatives, includes a provision to create a pilot program for Regional Economic Development visas.

Though details remain scarce, the pilot program would enable the admission of up to 10,000 additional immigrants per year whose employment “is essential to the economic development strategies of their local communities.” There also would be a labor certification component to the visas, and the initial launch of the program could last up to five years, according to the bill text.

That program echoes another proposal that has been circulating over the past few years. The Economic Innovation Group, an advocacy group for investors and entrepreneurship, floated the idea of a “heartland visa” program in 2019, which has gained traction over the last year with endorsements from the United States Conference of Mayors and from Biden, who included the plan in his campaign’s immigration platform.

The geographically targeted visa program would require dual opt in between communities and skilled foreign workers “to meet a range of needs” in the community, Lettieri told members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship Feb. 11.

To participate, eligible communities would have to provide a certain amount of funding to welcome new arrivals, and visa holders, in turn, would agree to settle in these communities for a period of time.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the subcommittee, expressed interest in introducing a bill to establish a heartland visa program at the close of the hearing.

Lofgren said she already had been working on legislation for a start-up visa program over the past several months, and would need to take more time to add heartland visas to the bill as a “chapter two.”

Business Community Buy-In

The pilot program for regional economic development would likely “be very well received by the business community,” said Maka Hutson, an immigration attorney with Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Dallas.

“The United States has never tried this before; our immigration system is based on federal law and does not differentiate the rules based on where in the United States immigrants live,” Hutson said.

“Some states and local jurisdictions will likely be eager to submit requests under the proposed pilot program to meet their specific labor needs and help their economies develop, especially as they recover from COVID-19 and need professionals in certain industries,” she said.

According to recent data from Envoy Global, a service that helps companies navigate the immigration system, 67% of more than 200 businesses surveyed said they could foresee their organization using a “heartland visa"-type program.

Without adequate incentives, the U.S. could find itself losing top talent as other nations with declining birthrates, such as Canada, liberalize their immigration policies to draw people in, said Envoy Global Chief Executive Officer Richard Burke.

“This type of reform has the potential to bring members of Congress to the table that have traditionally resisted immigration reform as it provides direct economic incentives for non-traditional districts that they represent and gives more power to state and municipal governments to manage immigration on their own terms,” he said.

Past Failures, Potential Alternatives

But general support for these measures won’t necessarily equal success.

The U.S. Citizenship Act’s regional economic development visa proposal echoes a similar initiative that was enacted as part of immigration law in 1990—the Labor Market Information program, which directed the U.S. Labor Department to identify industries with a shortage of workers in the U.S., and industries with a surplus, said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law practice at Cornell Law School.

The plan was to make it easier to select immigrants in the shortage occupations, and harder in the surplus occupations, he said.

“The proposed regulations were roundly criticized and the whole program died,” Yale-Loehr said. “In concept, this sounds great, but the devil is always in the details.”

According to the Heritage Foundation’s Michel, the current number of temporary work visas and programs are already too complicated for solving the economy’s needs.

“I don’t think adding any type of new visa is a great approach,” Michel said. “I think we need to fix the temporary worker visa system so that it is rational and it does serve the needs of communities across the U.S.”

The conservative think tank would support a different type of visa pilot program to target regional needs, Michel said. He described a plan that would merge existing temporary work visa categories into two distinct pools, differentiated by education requirements for the jobs they would fill, and assigned through an auction mechanism to let employers bid on whether they need these foreign workers.

“It might take a while to get going, but over time you can watch the price for work permits going up, adjusting to demand,” Michel said. “It’s a way of objectively determining whether people need more employees or not.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Jay-Anne B. Casuga at jcasuga@bloomberglaw.com

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