Panel Paper: Do Employer-Sponsored Immigrants Fare Better in Labor Markets Than Family-Sponsored Immigrants?

Thursday, November 2, 2017
Ogden (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Julia Gelatt, Migration Policy Institute

Early signs from President Trump and Congress suggest that if the country debates major immigration policy reforms over the next few years, those conversations are likely to center on cutting family-based immigration in favor of more employment-driven immigration. Currently, just 14 percent of legal permanent immigrants come through employment-based visas. President Trump’s February 2017 address to a joint session of Congress called for consideration of a “merit-based” immigration system, while Senators Cotton (R-AR) and Perdue (R-GA) have introduced a bill—reportedly praised by President Trump—that would eliminate many family-based immigration categories and the Diversity Visa program, in order to cut permanent legal immigration nearly in half.

Proposals to favor employment-based immigration over family chain migration are driven by the assumption that employer-sponsored immigrants are more successful in the labor market and contribute more to the economy than family-based immigrants. But this is not necessarily the case. Immigrants entering through family ties may have stronger social networks and informal supports that improve labor market outcomes, while employment-based migrants may enter with a job, but later find that they are not a good fit with U.S. labor markets. The only papers testing these theories are outdated. Studies of immigrant cohorts from the 1970s and early 1980s, before big shifts in immigration trends over the 1990s and 2000s, found that while, at entry, employment-based immigrants had higher skilled occupations and higher earnings than family-based migrants, the groups converged over time, as employment-based immigrants experienced more occupational downgrading and family-based immigrants experienced more upgrading and faster earnings growth (Duleep and Regets 1996; Jasso and Rosenzweig 1995).

To update our understanding of the topic and add information to coming policy debates, in this paper, I will use both waves of the New Immigrant Survey to study the labor market trajectories of legal immigrants by class of entry. The New Immigrant Survey (NIS) is a nationally representative longitudinal study of new legal immigrants and their children to the United States, who obtained lawful permanent residence (LPR) status in 2003. Immigrants were interviewed in 2003-2004, and again in 2007-2009.

I will examine the employment status, occupations, and wages of those entering through employment, family, diversity, and refugee/asylee streams, to examine how immigrants’ economic trajectories converge or diverge over additional years in the United States. I will also explore the roles of age at immigration, U.S. work experience, educational attainment, U.S. versus foreign education, and English proficiency in explaining any observed differences in labor market outcomes by class of entry. To the extent possible, I will separate family-based immigrants by their precise class of entry (parent of U.S. citizen, spouse of U.S. citizen, spouse of LPR, child of U.S. citizen, or sibling) to explore the labor market outcomes of immigrants in the categories most-likely to be considered for elimination in proposed legislation.

These results will provide new evidence to assess the potential outcome of changes to our immigration system. And, they can inform efforts to design immigration selection systems that effectively choose immigrants most-likely to succeed economically.