New Research Shows Immigrants Are More Likely to Move for a Job in Four Key Industries

When Emmanuel Barias, a Philippines-born doctor with U.S. residency training, decided he wanted to practice in the United States, he turned to an initiative specifically designed to meet the needs of rural America. The Conrad 30 Waiver Program allows foreign doctors to remain in the country after completing their residencies if they agree to practice in a medically underserved area for at least three years. Barias began fulfilling the requirements of Conrad 30 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but he longed to work somewhere with more acute medical needs. So, when two of his medical fraternity brothers from the Philippines invited him to join their clinic in Guymon, a town of 12,000 people on the high plains of Oklahoma’s panhandle, Dr. Barias said to his wife, “Let’s try rural.”

Barias is now finishing his ninth year in Guymon. He is one of just seven physicians practicing there, all of whom are Filipinos who took advantage of Conrad 30. In addition to working at the clinic and hospital, Barias opened a medical spa, and he and his wife opened two coffee shops, a gift and flower shop, and a restaurant—businesses that combined employ 60 people. “People tell me at the clinic, ‘Hey, Doc, I really appreciate what you’re doing,’” Barias says. “I love that we are welcome here. I love that people from other countries are looking for work here. It works in rural America.”

Barias isn’t alone in his eagerness to move within the United States for a promising position. Previous NAE research has found that immigrants as a whole are 13.7 percent more likely to move for a job than their U.S.-born counterparts. This brief explores how that phenomenon looks within four industries that together contribute almost $1.4 trillion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product each year: the hospital industry, the construction industry, the agricultural, forestry, and fishery industry, and the crop production industry. In recent years, all of these sectors have struggled to fill open positions—a reality that could be driven in part by the location of open and available jobs. Rural towns like Guymon face the largest physician shortages. Some produce growers rely on specialized workers who move throughout the year, following the harvest. And the locations with the greatest construction needs can change quickly, driven by factors like natural disasters or the arrival of a large hospital or employer.

Fortunately, immigrants are stepping up to fill these key roles. An analysis by Pavel Dramski, NAE’s Senior Economist, shows that recent immigrants—or those who have been in the United States for less than five years—are almost twice as likely to move for a job in the hospital industry than similar natives. They are also 47.2 percent more likely to move for a construction position. It is important to note that this does not include the move of an immigrant from their home country to the United States, but rather movement within the country once settled here.

The phenomenon of immigrants being more likely to move for a position is particularly notable in one industry already known to rely on migratory workers: the agriculture, fishing, and forestry industry. Recently arrived immigrants are 59.5 percent more likely to move for a job within that industry than similar natives—a meaningful trend given that foreign-born individuals make up more than half of all hired farm workers in the industry overall. Drilling down to crop production—a segment within the broader agriculture industry that includes workers handpicking fruits and vegetables—we find that recent immigrants are more than twice as likely to move for a job than similar natives.

How Much More Likely are Recent Immigrants to Move for a Job in Key Industries than Similar U.S.-born Workers?


Sector Additional Likelihood Immigrant Reported Moving for Job-Related Reasons
Agriculture, Fishing, and Forestry 59.5%
Construction 47.2%
Crop Production 102.2% (or more than twice as likely)
Hospitals 93.1%
Source: Author’s analysis of the Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey, 1999 to 2016.

Our results provide yet more evidence of the unique ways that immigrants fill gaps in our workforce. Many advocates argue that immigrants frequently fill jobs that many U.S.-born workers won’t do. Recent research produced by NAE has already found that immigrants are considerably more likely than similar natives to work nights or weekends. Together, our recent work shows that instead of thinking about jobs Americans “won’t do” strictly in terms of specific occupations that may be less attractive—such as meatpacking, farm labor, or fish processing, for instance—the time of day and location of the job should be taken into account when evaluating the importance of foreign-born workers to our workforce as well.  

Our findings are particularly notable given some of the challenges foreign-born workers hoping to move frequently face. Several temporary visa categories, including the H-1B for high-skilled workers and H-2B for seasonal work, do not allow immigrants to change jobs or work location without completely resubmitting their visa applications. Other foreign workers face barriers due to the broken and cumbersome nature of our immigration system more generally. Take Olga Reuvekamp and her family, who relocated to Elkton, South Dakota, as a part of an initiative aimed at reviving the state’s declining dairy industry. Since buying their 500-acre property, Hilltop Dairy, in 2006, the Reuvekamps have since hired local welders, electricians, and others to assist with the day-to-day running of their operation. They also increased the number of milk cows they own by 40 percent, to 2,000 heads. That sort of expansion is important to the state: One study found that each additional dairy cow is estimated to result in $14,000 worth of economic impact in South Dakota each year.

But a cumbersome visa process nearly prevented the Reuvekamps from bringing their entrepreneurism to South Dakota. The family waited two and a half years in the Netherlands for U.S. authorities to approve a conditional work permit, and then spent five years in South Dakota submitting documents to U.S. authorities to prove they were farming the land as promised. “It’s an incredibly expensive and time-consuming process,” Olga says. “There were other dairy farmers who spent $60,000 on visa and attorney fees and in the end had to leave.”

More disturbingly, there is evidence that challenges like the ones faced by the Reuvekamps may be more pronounced in the United States than in many other parts of the world. In several countries, including Australia and Canada, many underserved or rural areas are allowed to directly sponsor immigrants willing to come to the community to work in occupations facing worker shortages. In the United States, our immigration system is not as responsive to the real and varying needs that may exist across geographies. In recent months, Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado have proposed creating a visa program in the United States designed to meet regional workforce needs, an idea that has also earned support from Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder. If Congress takes up any sort of immigration reform in the future, such provisions should at least be considered and debated as part of any comprehensive plan.  



Data for this brief is sourced from the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC) of the Current Population Survey (CPS). The data was stacked across 70 cross-sections from 1999 to 2016. For each of these years, immigrants who have been in the United States for less than a year were excluded to avoid any contamination of immigrants’ decision to migrate to the United States with the immigrants’ decision to move for a job.

In order to quantify potential differences in moving for a job between immigrants and the U.S.-born population, we estimate linear probability models by industry of interest of the form

Movediy1 Immigrantiy + βRecent Immiy + ∆y + Siy,

where Movediy is whether a person i moved for a job in survey year y. The focus is on β1 and β2, which indicates how immigrants who have been in the United States for more than five years and those that have been in the United States for less than five years differ from natives. y is the year of the survey, while Sity represents a vector of indicators for age, gender, race, and ethnicity. The regressions utilize population weights.

The sample includes individuals between the ages of 18 to 65 years old who are not born abroad to American parents.  The sample also excludes individuals born in U.S.-territories. Finally, 2014 ASEC sample had an experimental design.  To avoid potential issues with the redesign, we keep the 5/8 sample.

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