The Wages of Skilled Temporary Migrants: Effects of Visa Pathways and Job Portability



We examine the earnings of highly-skilled foreign, temporary workers and how changes in visa system affect their earnings. We use the National Science Foundation's 2003 National Survey of College Graduates and find that foreign students and temporary workers earn less than natives and permanent immigrant workers on average. Changes in visa status increase earnings, but initial visa status conditions later earnings growth along visa pathways. This implies that migrant workers ability to achieve steady, rather than discontinuous, earnings growth requires policies that make their visa portable, that it permits them to readily change employers. An admission system that favours fully-portable permanent visas may improve worker productivity. The findings also indicate that the selectivity of foreign S&E students is not as great as that of new workers admitted from abroad; another argument against ‘stapling’ permanent visa status to foreign graduate degrees.

Policy Implications

  • Visa requirements do not ensure that temporary students and workers earn the same as similar natives during their initial period of stay. Over time this may depress occupational earnings.
  • There is a need to reform and enforce visa regulations. Visa portability that permits ready changes in employment should better migrant earnings. Permanent admission may be preferred.
  • Temporary foreign students experience slow earnings growth, while temporary workers hired from abroad outperform foreign graduates. The assumption that foreign graduates are the best qualified appears incorrect and facilitating (“stapling”) a green card to their diploma a poor idea.