Guest opinion: Washington should follow Utah’s lead on immigration

August 31, 2020

Utah Rep. John Curtis introduced a bill in November 2019 that he believes might be a breakthrough in the extremely polarized national immigration debate. Should the bill pass, states would be allowed to issue visas themselves, increasing the number of immigrants who can come to the U.S. and find work. Such pro-immigrant support has been a theme here in Utah, but it’s a partisan issue in Washington, D.C., that unnecessarily divides the country.

Based on a 2017 bill sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Congressman Curtis’ bill would give states the authority to issue approximately 10,000 new visas per year to migrant workers. The types of visas the states issue is up to them. They could even create entirely new categories of visas if they wanted.

For example, Utah is experiencing a shortage of high-skilled tech workers. The “supply” of workers is available in other countries, and the “demand” is high from Utah-based companies that want to hire them. The only thing stopping the labor market from working are the prohibitions placed on immigration by the federal government. Curtis’ bill would punch a hole in that prohibition, allowing Utah, and other states, to issue visas based on the needs of their specific state. While Utah and California may need more tech workers, Idaho and Montana may need more agricultural workers.

This type of pro-immigrant, market-based solution should become the new standard for the country as a whole. Utah has a long history of being an immigrant-friendly state and has only benefited from it. In 2015, Utah was the only Republican-dominated state that didn’t refuse Syrian refugees to resettle within its borders. More recently, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert penned a letter in support of Congressman Curtis’ state-based visa bill.

Why is such a deep red, hyperconservative state like Utah taking such a pro-immigrant stance? Perhaps it’s because Utah has discovered a few truths about the immigration debate that other red states have yet to grasp. Particularly that more immigration, not less, is the conservative solution to the immigration question. Indeed, strict limitations on immigration hold back economic growth that would otherwise benefit both immigrants and native-born Americans. That’s not very capitalist, and that’s not very conservative.

This realization blows apart the common claim that immigrants are a drain on the economy. Economist Michael Clemens has said that we are essentially leaving “trillion dollar bills” on the sidewalk by not allowing more immigrants to join us in the United States. Beyond that, the idea that immigrants depress American wages and steal American jobs does not stand up to scrutiny, either.

Should the state-based visa bill pass or fail, Congressman Curtis should be congratulated for putting forth a real solution in a time of partisan gridlock and legislative stagnation. His bill represents a fusion of federalism, innovative-thinking and adherence to free-market values. But more than that, it demonstrates a path forward on the immigration issue that is desperately needed. Both parties have long demagogued about immigration, but have delivered little. This presents an opportunity for Washington to realize that the future of the country shouldn’t lie in extreme rhetoric, but in actionable policy. When that day comes, it’ll have Utah to thank for showing it the way forward.

Chris Harelson is the executive director at Prosperity Utah and a Young Voices contributor.