It's called the Provincial Nominee Program. It's a system where the federal government allows regions (provinces) to determine their needs (the criteria is up to each region) and to select the immigrants they want. Once they've made their choice they nominate their candidates who must also make a separate application to the Canadian authorities for residency permits. Then the Canadian government examines the applications and can accept or reject them.
Under the arrangement, federal officials still play a role, signing off on the fact that provincial nominees meet the country’s health and safety standards and actually awarding the permanent resident card. But they do it with a light touch, and quickly. In recent years, the Canadian government has rejected just 4 percent of the provinces’ handpicked nominees. The average processing time for the vast majority of applicants was a speedy 12 months. Compare that to the 4.5 years for those coming in through the federal skilled worker program.
This is not entirely a new idea. As I recall from reading Patrick Weil, in the past the local prefectures in France had a lot more say in immigration and naturalization matters than they do today. It was only in 1891 in the U.S. that the federal government took direct control of immigration. There were even some U.S. states that tried to pass their own immigration laws after the Civil War but in 1875 the Supreme Court ruled that immigration was a federal matter, not a state one.
Canada started a controlled decentralization of immigration authority with Quebec - a province that had some particular requirements for immigrants and wanted more autonomy. Quebec has had a Minister of Immigration since 1968 and in 1971 the first "accord" was signed (Lang-Cloutier) which allowed that province to be represented at Canadian embassies abroad. In 1991, Quebec was given even more authority over immigration. They could select their own immigrants and manage their entry into the province.
After that the door was opened through the Provincial Nominee Program for other provinces to do something similar. The first was Manitoba in 1996 and others soon followed. You can find the full list of provinces with such programs here.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of what we might call a "place-based" decentralized immigration system?
A Better "Fit": The labor needs of Vancouver, B.C. and Montreal, Qc are not the same. Same is true for Seattle, Washington versus Mobile, Alabama or even Bordeaux versus Versailles. Each region, each city, has it own particular economic and social profile and it intuitively makes sense to try and match the needs of the area with the desires of the migrants.
One very poignant example that they give in the article is the once mighty city of Detroit in the U.S. A once thriving city of 1.5 million people, they are now down to 700,000 and shrinking fast.
Local Community Involvement: Where the local community (businesses, politician, churches and local taxpayers) have some say in the criteria for admitting new members, I think it's reasonable to expect that these communities would be more welcoming to migrants. It could calm natives' fear and give them some sense of control instead of the feeling many locals may have that they must submit to whatever is being decided by distant bureaucrats and politicians on the national level.
Efficient and Flexible: The Canadian programs seems to be very efficient and fast. Since the selection process is decentralized, most of the work is done at the local level and the national government has only to do a quick check before issuing the necessary permits. And it's much easier for the local authorities to change course in response to changing conditions on the ground: the closure or the opening of a new factory, for example, or a research center. They don't have to wait until national immigration law catches up with the local economic facts.
Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? But there are downsides, in particular for the migrants themselves.
Location, Location, Location: The places that are most interested in welcoming migrants may not be the places that migrants actually want to go. For someone whose heart is set on San Francisco, California, Saint Cloud, Minnesota simply will not do. There are a lot of factors that influence a migrant's decision and one of the most important is the desirability and attractiveness of the destination. Just because a place is willing to offer a visa or residency permit, does not mean that they will come. And the idea that one might be "stuck" in a place - that there may be barriers to moving on if the migrant's needs and desires change - is a definite downside. This is a big problem with the H1-B visa which ties migrants to an employer. Lacking any other options, migrants may take the deal or they may simply choose to stay home or look elsewhere.
Local Consensus May be an Illusion: In a perfect world the locals will have come to some sort of consensus about who they want to invite in. But we don't live in a perfect world and one could envision a troubled local political environment where businesses, for example, get their labor needs met at the expense of the local population which then seethes with anger and is less than welcoming to the new arrivals. No fun to walk into a world where local labor and business are at war.
Enforcement: The article goes into this in some detail. A region issues an invitation, the migrant arrives, and then leaves for greener pastures. What do you do then? Chase them down and haul them back? The idea makes me kind of queasy, not to mention that this would be a costly and cumbersome process. Not being police states, Canadian provinces don't do this according to the article. Instead they try to be really sure beforehand that it's a good match and that it stands a good chance of working for all parties:
The trick learned in the last decade or so, testify the Canadian experts, is to choose the right immigrants — those who can slide with relatively little friction into local life, whether that’s having a suitable, sustainable job lined up, having spent time in their chosen province already or having other Chinese, Nigerians or Ukrainians on the ground who are willing to help them get settled.
Those are some of the pros and cons but I personally think the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. Could this be a model for other countries? Absolutely. Some Americans are looking at it in the context of immigration reform which is being debated right now in the U.S. Peter Spiro, one of my favorite authorities on immigration matters, made this argument in favor: “Why should cities like New York, Chicago or Washington that don’t have a problem with immigration be constrained by the lowest common denominator, like an Arizona or Alabama?” That is true of other countries as well. In France such a system could be used to draw people into some of the under-populated areas outside of the main cities where migrants tend to cluster. Spreading migrants around in communities that have clearly expressed that they need and want them might go a long way toward reducing tensions over immigration everywhere.
And once again, Canada shows us another way to look at managing immigration. I highly recommend the article - it's a good read.