Background and Scope of the Project

The United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world, with every country in the world represented among its immigrant population. While Mexico is one of the major countries of origin for migrants coming to the United States, there are also large numbers of migrants who originate from China, India, the Philippines, and El Salvador. Migration patterns and motives vary across different populations and countries. Migrants have cited various reasons factoring for their move to a particular host country, including higher income levels, better personal safety, and living conditions, short distance to home countries, and established immigrant networks. Economic theory and econometric literature prominently highlight international labor mobility (both low and high skilled) that stems from wage differences and variations in GDP levels between host and source countries. The form of migration impacts education levels, ages, and tenures of immigrants, and consequently, their probable assimilation. When migrants have the power to choose, the nature of the migration also impacts the host country selected.

Over the past decades, an increasing number of countries have developed a growing interest in attracting and retaining skilled and highly skilled migrant workers. The scholarship has indicated that among things, skilled inward migration serves to propel economic growth and innovation, and recent studies suggest that skilled migration is on the rise. OECD countries have tailored their migration governance to attract skilled and highly skilled migrants, and until fairly recently, this was the policy also being adopted in the United States. Data suggests that a fifth of all tertiary-educated migrants in the United States have come from countries such as China, India, and the Philippines. While categorizing migrants into different baskets is considered essential for state and other actors engaged in developing policies around migration, migrant categories as a whole are increasingly being interrogated and problematized by scholars immersed in the field. Scholars researching migration have struggled with the static binaries that categorization imposes, for example, the dichotomous wedge between skilled and unskilled immigration is not always helpful when research has demonstrated that even highly-skilled migrants experience a range of potential exploitation and difficulties that they are assumed to be immune from. While this research project is focusing on forms of economic migration to the United States, so is by its nature adopting a form of “migrant category’, through this project, we do hope to interrogate the usefulness and value of classificatory approaches to the study of international migration.

High migration rates are associated with individuals with tertiary education, and literature points to a largely held belief that skilled migrants create or are faced with fewer assimilation problems. These professionals are more desirable in present-day modern knowledge economies than blue-collar unskilled immigrants are. This is also attributed to the migration system of immigrants with different skill levels. Whereas most unskilled workers enter a host country through illegal networks, skilled immigrants enter via legal mechanisms. Many of the developed countries today feature a legal migration system for skilled workers to migrate to their shores from the developing countries. In the case of the U.S., this system is complex and has various sub-categories of visa types through which skilled workers can gain entry into the country. Skilled migrants are considered vital to a country’s development, and in the age of global competition for talent and designing policies to attract and to retain the best and the brightest are key components. 

Globally there has been a political turn towards limiting or curbing pathways to permanent settlement and migration, and increasing migrants are finding it harder to for the best professionals, temporary immigrant admission programs have grown in multiple locations. In the U.S., one of the visa categories designed to allow foreign workers temporary access to the American labor market is the H-1B. Under this category, U.S. employers can seek temporary work visas for foreign nationals who have the requisite skills needed for specialized occupations, and this has been an increasingly popular mechanism by which U.S. employers have met their workforce needs. Currently, the H-!B program is capped at of 65,000 visas per annum, with an additional 20,000 in place for those that qualify for advanced degree exemption. The majority of the skilled and highly skilled temporary migrants that come to the U.S. fall under this category. However, the program has been criticized for being manipulated by companies more interested in acquiring cheaper foreign skilled labor, rather than being reserved for particularly talented or skilled people who cannot be found locally. Recently reforming the H-1B program has gained greater political traction, although what those final reforms are to look like and what their implications will be for the dynamics of U.S. migration is still unknown.

In 1960 it was reported that around 6.6% of immigrants were employed in occupations associated with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). According to the American Community Survey, this share had increased to a far higher 29% in 2018. Scholars have argued that an average U.S. citizen feels less threatened by skilled immigrants as they are not perceived as much of a fiscal drain and public resources, and can also be more easily assimilated into the social and economic system. However, studies have also shown that there are obstacles to this assimilation, such as recognition of employment degrees and inadequate professional connections and networks. Further examination of the long-term career trajectories and workplace mobility for skilled and highly skilled migrants in the U.S. is worthy of closer examination.

Education and long term career motivations are closely related and hard to disentangle when it comes to youth migration patterns to North America. International student mobility brings thousands of foreign citizens to the U.S. universities each year, and for some of these young people long opportunities to work in the U.S. after completing their studies certainly serves as an additional draw. The United States, similar to other OECD countries, have tailor-made immigration programs that are designed to attract and retain international students, particularly those in the STEM fields, who are viewed as potential skilled migrants. By definition, former international students are of prime workforce age, face fewer regulatory barriers, and usually have self-funded to meet domestic employer demand. Within the U.S. and other host country workforce, these students have emerged as a priority human capital resource that is better educated, leads to innovation, has a greater occupational specialization, and can drive higher economic productivity. However, the reduction of net migration flows to the U.S. and bans imposed on several countries has had an effect on student migration in general, and has affected the retention of particularly Ph.D. students within the U.S. Additionally, current policy reforms around migration in the U.S. are designed to chip away at programs allowing international students to transfer their immigration status after graduation, and may well be limiting these opportunities. Whether or not these flows can be reversed is a question that required attention from policymakers, academics, and potential employers in the United States. 

At a global level, data demonstrates an increasing feminization of migration patterns. Data on migrant communities in the U.S. indicates that the female share of the immigrant population is higher than its male counterpart. While traditionally, the bulk of the female migrant population would have occurred as part of family reunification migration, the rate of skilled women or female-initiated migration into the U.S. has been steadily increasing over the past decades. This growth is attributed to an increase in women’s educational attainment, a rise in demands for skilled female workers, particularly in the medicine and health sector, and change in perception and norms towards female migration in many countries of origin. However, the career paths and variations in choices made by these skilled women as compared to their male counterparts need further examination. Their integration into the workforce and the ease or difficulty of their professional mobility also is an understudied area that this project aims to address.

To study the challenges and opportunities of skilled immigration flows to the United States, in 2020, the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University Qatar launched a new project to explore the dynamics of “Economic Migration to the United States.” The aim was to bring together a group of scholars and experts to identify core areas of research that need to be undertaken to deepen our knowledge of the phenomenon. The above paragraphs have elaborated on some of the areas of focus that we aimed to include in this research effort, along with additional areas: the fluidity and challenges of migration categories, skilled migration and the changing spectrum of U.S. immigration policy, migrants’ and employment in the U.S., the H-1B visa program, international student mobility and migration, gender and migration in the U.S. The project also aimed to include particular areas of focus from different geographic lenses – so will include cases studies of economic migrants from East Asia, South Asia, Middle East, and Latin America.  


Article by Misba Bhatti, Research Analyst at CIRS