American Studies, Focused Discussions, Race & Society

Economic Migration to the United States Virtual Working Group


On October 19-20, 2020, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) held the second working group for its research initiative on Economic Migration to the US. The virtual meeting brought together scholars who presented draft papers on important themes related to immigration reform, transnationalism, education, and labor market participation and employment. In addition, several papers provided focused case studies of economic migrants from particular regions such as South Asia, East Asia, and Latin America.

The working group commenced with Payal Banerjee’s paper on “Economic Migration to the US: An Exchange with Data-Capitalism, Surveillance and Other Considerations in Immigrant Incorporation.” In this paper Banerjee critiques a terminology that frames and conceptualizes international migrants to the US within a bounded idea of “economic.” What constitutes economic migration is informed by broader social and political mechanisms and dynamics. This paper seeks to expand the economic lens and press against it so that it captures the social and historical making of immigrants and their labor contributions in the US. The Banrjee paper suggests that it is essential to address issues of inherent inequality between labor and capital through a structured discussion of capitalism and its new forms. A particular scrutiny of the impact that automation, digitization, and surveillance technologies are having on migrants is needed at the current juncture. Banerjee states that new forms of automation, as well as data capitalism and the algorithms it produces are reshuffling the circulation of capital and influencing immigration management in the country.  

Terry Wotherspoon presented his paper on “International Student Mobility and Settlement,” stating that until fairly recently there was limited scholarship and policy attention focused on international students as potential future immigrants. In his paper, Wotherspoon focuses on the relationship between national immigration policies and the aspirations or desires of the students themselves, and studies the factors that  either facilitate or inhibit students’ permanent settlement. While for the most part international students are still seen by the state primarily as temporary visitors, policy developments reflect the fact that internationals students have also been considered as a useful means by which to address short-term labor market needs. There is a significant gap between the number of students who express a desire to remain in the host country and those who find employment and actually stay on after completing their studies. The paper looks at various pathways available for international students to facilitate their stay in the US and how this is informed by global trends.

In his presentation on  “South Asian Migrant Communities and US Politics,” Sangay Mishra questions the political deficit that temporary migrant workers faces as a result of limitations to political and civic participation that the visa regime imposes on them. The H-1B is essentially a guest worker visa  that is designed around the concept of temporariness. This visa regime produces a democratic and civic deficit in the United States, as those living and working in the country under this visa category are relegated to non-participation. In the US inclusion and participation are assumed to be privileges available to those who “earn it,” usually through contributing to the economy and abiding by the system and their legal status for a certain duration of time. However, for those who remain on the H-1B there is no guarantee of acquiring permanent status or becoming eligible for citizenship, despite years of staying on US soil. In the empirical section of the article, Sangay looks at a particular situation that is created for Indian H-1B visa holders when they apply for a green card and the waiting time.

Silvia Pedraza’s paper on “Transnationalism Among Immigrants: Economic, Political, Social,” outlines the various immigrant experiences such as assimilation, incorporation and transnationalism. Pedraza argues that while immigrants to United States have always demonstrated forms of transnationalism, current advances of in communication technology have changed the nature and scope of their transnational behaviors. The present day American immigrant lives across two or more nations as well as different time spans, tied to the past and the present, in both host and sending country. Pedraza’s paper breaks down the different types of transnationalism that demonstrate distinctly economic, social, and political elements.

Min Zhou shared her research on “Contemporary Immigration to the US from East Asia.” Professor Zhou’s paper focuses on the migration of three major ethnonational groups, Japanese, Chinese and the Koreans, and their distinct histories of migration to the United States. Zhou states that while these three groups have their own distinct migration stories, they are often racialized and treated as single consolidated group in the US. This paper provides an analytical overview of the immigration trends of the three Asian migrant communities, and how their diasporas have evolved. The paper provides a structured discussion of contemporary trends of cross-border mobility, socioeconomic characteristics of migration and patterns of social mobility for each of the Asian communities. Zhou suggests that old and new stereotypes have continued to influence the lives and identity formation of East Asian Americans.

In her presentation of a paper jointly authored with Catelina Amnuedo Dorantes on “The US Visa System without Legislative Change: Growing Complexity and Difference,” Professor Katherine Donato addressed the issue of variations in the US visa systems across presidential administrations. She maintained that the legal visa systems that were created by the Immigration Act of 1990 remain unchanged and still define the way legal immigrants enter the US. She provided an overview of the visa admission system, defining its goals, composition and reforms that have occurred under successive administrations. Using immigrant entry data, covering the 2002 through 2017 as well as trends in nonimmigrant visa issuances she maintained that visas differ in important ways across various US administrations. The variations have intended and unintended consequences, which are important for any policy proposals drafted in the future to improve the legal immigration system in the US.

Lindsey Lowell continued the discussion on the visa systems by focusing on H-1B visa category. In his paper titled, “Preferential Hiring and the US Earnings of Skilled Foreign Temporary Workers,” he maintained that the theory of preferential hiring drives our understanding about sector-specific earnings of H-1B workers. Employers often prefer to hire foreign workers and temporary visa systems such as H-1B offer advantages in hiring and control over employment. In this paper Lindsey proposes that the when it comes to the earnings of H-1B the correct comparison should be to all domestic workers i.e. natives and foreign born. Combing data on H-1B with a large sample of US workers, full time domestic worker, Lindsay’s research concluded that while H-1B earn more than native born workers, their earnings are less than that of domestic workers.

Misba Bhatti addressed the question of degree devaluation with her paper titled, “Devalued Credentials: Pakistani Female Highly Skilled Migrants in the United States.” This work examines and nuances the experiences of highly skilled women from Pakistan and details the issues they face in the United States in regard to the devaluation of their foreign earned degrees. There is a gender skew with women often being placed at a greater academic or occupational disadvantage than their male counterparts. This is more visible in sectors that hire certain sets of skilled migrants and are usually tipped in favor of male skilled migrants. Likewise, the foreign credentials of female migrants from South Asia are treated differently, as that of having lower standards, than that of women skilled migrants from developed economies.  As a result highly skilled female migrants from developing economies face systematic dual dichotomy when it comes to their foreign earned credential recognition in the U.S.

The last discussion of the working group was led by Rene Zenteno, who presented a paper on “Latin American Skilled Workers’ Socio-Economic Integration.” Using data from 1990 to 2018 the paper constructs an updated demographic and provides an understanding of the recent transformations of the Latino immigration to the U.S. The data collected yields a picture of significant changes in the characteristics and qualities of Latino Immigrants as this wave of migration from Latin America declines quickly. The paper states that this  decrease in the flow of Latin immigration has effected student migration largely, as well as the supplies of high-skilled Latino immigrants. Professor Zenteno also argues that despite changes in cohort quality, the successful integration of Latino immigrants into the U.S. society is still hindered by the large presence of un-skilled workers, the lack of a path to legalization, the low rates of naturalization, and the ethno-racial profiling of U.S. immigration enforcement.


Participants and Discussants:

  • Maram Al-Qershi, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Payal Banerjee, Smith College
  • Misba Bhatti, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Ahmad Dallal, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Katharine M. Donato, Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) – Georgetown University
  • Catalina Amuedo-Dorantes, University of California, Merced
  • Anatol Lieven, Georgetown University in Qatar
  • B. Lindsay Lowell, Institute for the Study of International Migration (ISIM) – Georgetown University
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • 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 Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS