Baker Institute paper: Higher-skilled Mexican migrants face uncertainty about US

Uncertainty about the status of Mexican immigrants to the United States and conditions for future migration has affected not only undocumented workers but also higher-skilled migrants, according to a new issue brief from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

“The U.S. Visa System and the Migration of High-skilled Mexican Workers Into the United States: Uncertainties and Options” was authored by Elizabeth Salamanca, a nonresident scholar in the Baker Institute’s Mexico Center and professor of international business at Universidad de las Américas Puebla in Mexico. The brief reviews existing literature on the types of U.S. visa categories most frequently requested by qualified Mexican migrants, the possible changes that may impact these visas under the administration of President Donald Trump and the implications of those changes.

Since the election of Trump, one of the main fears of Mexican migrants has been the adoption of stricter policies regarding the issuance of visas, Salamanca said. In the case of traditional migrants, this fear has largely focused on potential changes to family-based immigration visas, which protect the migratory status of family members of U.S. citizens.

“However, uncertainty about the status of immigrants to the United States and conditions for future migration has affected not only undocumented Mexican workers but also higher-skilled migrants who have benefited from the opportunities offered by visa programs such as the specialty occupation working visa (H-1B), the treaty investor visa (E-2), the EB-5 investor program and the North American Free Trade Agreement professionals (TN) visa, among others,” Salamanca wrote. “These programs are mainly directed at attracting skilled migrants such as scholars, professionals (i.e., lawyers, physicians, architects and scientists) and entrepreneurs. However, these visa categories have become a subject of public debate among those who favor the restriction of immigration.”

During his presidential campaign, Trump promised to reduce H-1B visas, since they cut into jobs that, he argued, should be filled by Americans. Since assuming office, he has ordered a comprehensive review of the H-1B visa program, Salamanca said. “Given that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security reports that 44 percent of H-1B applicants approved in 2016 have a bachelor’s degree, it is expected that any resulting changes to the program will be geared toward eliminating the common practice of some employers of hiring foreigners for jobs that only require a bachelor’s degree, and instead ensuring that H-1B visas are only granted for the most skilled immigrants filling the highest-paid jobs,” she wrote.

There may be a silver lining for Mexico in the face of Trump’s attempts to reform the U.S. visa system, Salamanca said. “A new, more restrictive system can potentially reshape transnational business activities and cause visa holders to develop other business or professional opportunities,” she wrote. “More restrictive visa conditions could create a virtuous cycle in the sense that higher-skilled professionals and entrepreneurs could employ deported Mexican migrants in their business ventures as well. Such a practice could result in more sustainable economic and social conditions in Mexico for both entrepreneurs and traditional migrant workers.”

Even so, it is unlikely that the Trump administration will make radical changes to the E-2 and EB-5 visas, though changes to the H-1B and TN visas are more likely, Salamanca said. “But, again, this situation may push higher-skilled Mexicans to look for labor and academic opportunities elsewhere, specifically in countries facing talent shortages — such as Canada or Australia — or simply to stay in Mexico,” she wrote. “In the long term, however, the Mexican government must invest more in research and development projects to retain Mexicans with more sophisticated skills, knowledge and competence and must implement policies that lead to higher salaries in order to keep Mexican talent in the country.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.