American Studies, Focused Discussions, Race & Society

Economic Migration to the United States Roundtable


On February 15-16, 2020, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held a Research Roundtable on the topic of Economic Migration to the United States with the purpose to deepen our understanding of the challenges and opportunities of skilled immigration flows to the U.S. OECD countries, and, until fairly recently, the U.S. have developed their migration policies and systems to attract skilled and highly-skilled migrants. With the last major immigration legislation being enacted 30 years ago, it is a worthwhile endeavor to analyze the current policy environment and lived experiences of skilled migrants in the U.S. Over the course of two days, participating scholars and experts engaged in a dynamic conversation that explored several important areas, including: transnational migration patterns to the U.S., categories of mobility, migration policy and reform, national security and migration, international student dynamics, and integration and political mobilization of specific migrant populations.

Silvia Pedraza, Professor of Sociology and American Culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, started the conversation by presenting the economic, political, and social aspects of transnationalism, as practiced by immigrants in their home and host countries. Instant communication has made an enormous impact on the lives of immigrants, helping them to remain connected to their families and community in their home countries. A particularly interesting phenomenon for the Cuban community is the emerging economic markets that have sprung up with the lifting of U.S. embargo against Cuba. Dr. Pedraza questions how increasing transnationalism and easier communication with the home country has affected the assimilation of Cuban immigrants, and whether it comes at a social or cultural cost to society.

There are many complex categories of immigration visas to the U.S. Payal Banerjee, Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology at Smith College, challenged the participants to consider that the status of highly-skilled migrants is just as precarious as that of low-skilled migrants. Though the common assumption is that low-skilled migrants are more vulnerable than highly-skilled migrants, the dependence on an employer, university, or family member for their legal status produces an unstable situation for highly-skilled migrants. Their status is conditional and terminable at any point, which could be to the benefit of the employer to keep wages low and the workforce flexible. The divide between documented and undocumented, skilled and unskilled, can be challenged when considering that all migrants exist in a state of precarity. Dr. Banerjee argued that immigration and migration policies will need to adapt to the labor ecology of the future, given the trends pointing towards AI, automation, and the use of algorithms in the sectors that are heavily reliant on skilled labor.

Continuing on the theme of immigration policy reform, Katharine Donato, the Donald G. Herzberg Professor of International Migration and Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, led the group through a discussion on the paradoxical way U.S. government administrations have approached reform. Immigration law has not changed since 1990, but rather, adjustments have been made on an ad-hoc basis through presidential orders and executive actions. On one hand, management of immigration policy by executive order is destabilizing for labor migrants, but it also allows for flexibility for this area where it is difficult to get calibrate the policy in a way that works for all stakeholders. This instability also impacts employers, who find it difficult to match their need with the supply of visas for highly-skilled migrants.

Work towards matching labor flow with employers needs was also a topic under the discussion led by Lindsay Lowell, Adjunct Research Professor in Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Senior Affiliate at the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM), in the context of workplace mobility for highly-skilled migrants in the U.S. The STEM field is uniquely interesting in this regard and more research is needed to understand how the immigration system could be better organized to meet the need for STEM workers. Dr. Lowell also put forward for discussion the interplay between higher education and immigration. Many universities develop specific programs designed to attract international students, who are a large funding source for universities. Students may come to study in the U.S. expecting that after graduation they will be able to easily transfer to a H-1B visa and find employment. But in reality, this is often not the case.

Elizabeth Ferris, Research Professor at Georgetown University in the Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM), led a discussion on the concept of national security in the U.S. as it relates to migration. The relationship between the two, she argued, largely depends on how national security is defined. According to Dr. Ferris, for those traditionalists who view national security as primarily protecting borders, immigration — both legal and unauthorized — tends to be viewed as a potential threat to U.S. national interests. Others take a broader view of national security to include concepts important to human security. Those who take this view tend to see immigration to the U.S. in terms of long-term economic interests and the soft power of the U.S. Though there is a lot of research on immigration in the context of national security, more work needs to be done bridging the gap between these two parallel views of the topic.

The U.S. has historically been one of the key focal points attracting international students. Terry Wotherspoon, Professor of Sociology at the University of Saskatchewan, led a discussion on the intentions and ability of international students to stay in the U.S. once their education is completed. General trends suggest that a majority of international students have a strong preference to stay in the country of study. Yet fewer than half of those actually end up staying. There can be many reasons behind why students leave despite their wanting to stay, but there is not much evidence to draw strong conclusions. Dr. Wotherspoon argued that as source countries like India and China are going through important labor market, demographic, and technological changes, it is important to understand the implication for international student mobility and settlement in the U.S. and the long-term political economy of the higher education field.

On the second day of the Research Roundtable, the discussion shifted towards looking at economic migration of specific ethnic groups to the U.S. Michael Ewers, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, opened the day by leading a conversation on skilled migration to the U.S. from the Middle East. For this population, it is interesting to consider migration in the context of securitization, economic benefits, and perceptions of the security threat of migrants. Though the economic and financial impact of immigration in the U.S. is not well-known and widely debated, what is certain is that large Middle Eastern immigrant populations are settling in large cities in the U.S. that are trending towards population loss, such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. What this could mean for these cities’ economic markets is an interesting area of research.

Migration flows to the U.S. from Latin America in the past have been largely low-skilled, but since 2007, the education levels and English language skills of migrants have increased. René Zenteno, Professor of Demography at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), led the participants in a discussion on the experiences of undocumented highly-skilled migrants from Latin America. There are more highly-skilled migrants in the flow of undocumented migrants than before, and whether or not they have legal status may impact the ability of the migrant to integrate into the labor market. Highly-skilled Hispanic migrants also experience of workplace discrimination to a greater extent than non-Hispanic highly-skilled migrants, which may also be related to their legal status. The transference of foreign credentials to the U.S. often creates a skill-job mismatch for Latin American migrants who may be highly qualified in their home country, but must take positions in the U.S. that require less qualification due to the non-recognition of their foreign credentials.

The final two sessions of the Research Roundtable discussed the experiences of Asian migrants to the U.S. Sangay Mishra, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drew University, opened a discussion on the political mobilization of South Asian immigrants, by Indian communities in particular. A unique characteristic of the Indian immigrant population is that the vast majority are foreign-born, not second generation. Indian immigrants are the third-largest immigrant group in the U.S., yet at least 50 percent of Indian immigrants are not U.S. citizens and are on other visa types than just the H-1B visa category. For this community, the parameters of the H4 dependent visa has been an important area of political mobilization. In particular, lobbying groups have taken up the issue of the right of H4 dependent migrants to work, and push for immigration reform in this area. The overwhelming percentage of highly educated women who are in this category forms a unique sub-group of the Indian immigrant population that deserves further examination.

Min Zhou, Professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies, Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in US-China Relations and Communications, and Director of the Asia Pacific Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, continued the discussion in a comparison of the Indian and Chinese highly-skilled migrants in Los Angeles, California. In terms of visa categories, Indian immigrants mostly migrate to the U.S. on the H-1B visa. For Chinese immigrants, the majority of migrants come on a student visa and then adjust to the H-1B category. Yet, Chinese are the overwhelming majority of the recipients of EB-5 investment visas. The integration patterns of these communities are diverse based on education and profession. Those Chinese migrants who have higher socioeconomic characteristics on arrival seem to integrate much more quickly than others. As the non-Hispanic White population in the U.S. continues to lose the numerical majority, Dr. Zhou suggests that perhaps the power dynamics between races and migrants/non-migrants could shift.

There are several overall themes coming out of the two days of discussion, including: the precarity of immigrants in the U.S., across the skill spectrum; the increasing difficulty with which rigid visa categories can accurately match skilled labor with market needs, especially in the STEM fields; and the long-term career trajectories, workplace mobility, and settlement opportunities for highly-skilled migrants and international students, especially at the intersection of higher education and immigration policies. Immigrant experiences across all nationalities are influenced by gender and generational aspects, especially when it comes to immigrant families and the ability to integrate into the local labor market. More highly-skilled migrants are undocumented than before, and their experiences of labor market and social integration and discrimination are important areas for future study.

CIRS plans to follow on from this roundtable with a more in-depth research project on the topic of economic migration to the U.S. in order to better understand these questions.


Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Payal Banerjee, Smith College
  • Katharine M. Donato, Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) – Georgetown University
  • Michael Ewers, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Elizabeth Ferris, Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) – Georgetown University
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • B. Lindsay Lowell, Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) – Georgetown University
  • Sangay Mishra, Drew University
  • Silvia Pedraza, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Terry Wotherspoon, University of Saskatchewan
  • René Zenteno, The University of Texas at San Antonio
  • Min Zhou, University of California, Los Angeles

Article by Elizabeth Wanucha, Operations Manager at CIRS