IIR Responds to Report on Highly Skilled Workers

Center for Immigration Studies Ignores Challenges Foreign Workers Face

The Center for Immigration Studies’ latest paper, “High-Skill Immigrants in Low-Skill Jobs,” uses Census data to address “occupational mismatch” among legal highly skilled immigrants, meaning their jobs do not match their education levels.  However, the paper uses biased and selective interpretation of findings to conclude lawmakers should be wary of even highly-skilled, highly educated legal immigrants.

First, CIS finds that “[s]ome highly educated immigrants, such as those from Canada and Australia, generally take jobs in the United States that require more skill than jobs held by comparably educated natives. By contrast, highly educated immigrants from places such as Mexico and Central America tend to take lower-skill jobs despite their credentials.” It is striking that CIS fails to comment on the fact that the highly educated immigrants getting jobs in the U.S. that require more skill typically are white and speak English as their native language. On the other hand, those who tend to take lower-skill jobs are from Mexico and Central America, and typically are brown and speak Spanish as their native language. CIS fails to explain their own findings that show immigrants with college degrees who hold relatively low skill jobs generally also come from Central America, the Caribbean, South America, the Middle East and Africa. In other words, CIS emphasizes the outcome--highly skilled immigrants in low-skill jobs--while conveniently ignoring the barriers of race and language that produce the outcome.

Second, CIS finds that “[t]he occupational skills gap does not disappear as immigrants spend more time in the United States.“ In other words, CIS places the blame for occupational mismatch on immigrants and their failure to acculturate. There is no consideration as to structural constraints that may contribute to high skill immigrants’ failure to move into higher skill occupations the longer they are in the United States. For example, the inability to get licensed or certified in their professions because U.S. institutions won’t accept their foreign diplomas.

Instead, CIS comes to its unwarranted conclusion that “[t]hese results suggest a need for caution in designing a high-skill immigration system,” and that lawmakers should go slow when it comes to high-skill immigration policy, as “… paper credentials are a noisy predictor of success.”  In other words, simply having a great education should not be enough to enter the U.S. Instead, CIS calls for a discriminating set of selection criteria to recruit “Einsteins.”

Albert Einstein was 54 years old and already an eminent scientist, when he immigrated to the United States, a refugee fleeing the Nazis Third Reich, which accused him of treason in absentia. In many ways Einstein was an exception. The more common circumstance is that talented young people come to the U.S. and its higher education system, which is the best in the world, creates the next Einsteins. For example, none of the six 2016 Nobel Prize winners in the sciences, including economics, were born in the United States, but five of the six were employed at a U.S. university early in their careers, or received doctoral or post-doctoral training in the United States. In 2017, six of the nine Nobel Laureates were born in the United States, received their doctoral degrees in the United States and were employed at a U.S. university; a seventh was born in Germany but then received his entire education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after his family was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s as refugees.

These exceptional individual cases illustrate a significant flaw undermining the entire CIS analysis. Using Census data, CIS doesn’t know where immigrants got their education, only where individuals are born and the highest degree obtained. It may well be that many of the noisy “paper credentials” CIS is describing were actually awarded at U.S. colleges and universities. Predicting individual success is not so easy, a plausible alternative conclusion from the CIS analysis is that high skill immigration policy should cast the net widely and recruit and encourage ambitious and talented young people from around the world to come to America’s colleges and universities to their benefit and ours. 

But that is not what current U.S. immigration policy is doing. Rather, it is making it harder for young scholars to enter the country and to stay here after receiving an education. Beyond these legal barriers, CIS fails to consider the extent to which language barriers and discrimination limit the careers of highly skilled immigrants once they are in the United States.  Responsible policy would seek to address these issues and promote the acculturation and integration of highly skilled immigrants who are already in the United States. Many are stuck in low skill occupations hampered by language difficulties when they arrive or complete their education. Others face discrimination in the labor market, or lack the networks and social capital needed to find employment commensurate with their education. Still others take low skill employment to immediately support their families rather than pursue more lucrative long-term options. Rather than address these issues the CIS paper uses faulty analyses to advance a counter-productive, politically motivated agenda.