Scientists working in the US. Photo: U.S. Army RDECOM (Flickr/Creative Commons).
Scientists working in the US. Photo: U.S. Army RDECOM (Flickr/Creative Commons).

Talent retention regimes in the US and Canada

My dissertation compares how international students can stay to work in the US and Canada. Policymakers in both countries have argued that their economies lack skilled workers, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. At the same time, universities in these countries are enrolling large numbers of foreign students, many of whom are studying for STEM degrees.

Most of these students come from developing countries like China and India. In previous decades, students from the developing world often stayed permanently in the country where they were trained. Now, however, it is common for graduates to return to their country of origin, circulate between the country of origin and the country of training, or move to a third country [1]. In the policy debate in destination countries, this problem is often framed as a potential “reverse brain drain” that will have major negative consequences for the local economy [2].

Policymakers fear that their loss will be a competitor country’s gain, leading to a “race for talent” [3]. One maneuver in this race that solves both the perceived skilled labor shortage and the potential reverse brain drain is allowing foreign students to stay in the destination country for the medium- to long-term. A number of wealthy Western countries have implemented talent retention regimes, immigration policies that create a special fast track through the immigration system for foreign graduates. They facilitate the process by which foreigners with desired skills transition between successively more permanent legal residence categories (e.g. from student visa to temporary work visa, and then to permanent residence and citizenship). For example, since 2011, international students who have completed at least two years of a PhD program in Canada can apply for permanent residency in that country through a special eligibility stream.

The popularity of talent retention regimes, and skilled labor immigration programs more generally, fits in with the general trend of economy-minded thinking in politics since World War II [4]. In this line of thought, governments ought to select migrants based on their potential contributions to industry and to the fiscal base of the welfare state, rather than selecting them by lottery or by their relationships to citizens [5]. This selection process maximizes the perceived and expected benefits of migration to the state and to the economy. As multistep pathways to immigrant admission, they also reduce the risks inherent in immigrant selection [6]. By the time they apply for change of status under a talent retention regime, the potential migrants have already been screened twice: once through the formal screening process of applying for a student visa, and once again through the informal screening process of living, studying, and working in the destination country. They will have demonstrated their economic contribution and made progress in their integration in the destination social context.

Given the existence of ostensibly successful policy models and the general international consensus that immigration selection should be based on economic theory, it is puzzling that some countries have not implemented talent retention regimes. This is even more puzzling when comparing countries that are otherwise very similar. Why does Canada have one when the US does not? In the US, talent retention has been discussed in the public migration debate. Why did it fail to reach the final stage of becoming law?

Theories of immigration policymaking, theories of policy diffusion, and theories of economization and neoliberalism in politics all predict that Western liberal democracies will implement more open immigration policies, especially for skilled workers. Skilled migrants are economically desirable and politically palatable. Countries that want more of these migrants will emulate successful models. The US case challenges this body of theory. It has not implemented this model despite widespread acknowledgment that certain constituencies want skilled migrants and that skilled migrants may be beneficial to the public good. By tracing policy developments in the US and Canada, I will identify the factors and processes that led to the success or failure of talent retention regimes. I will draw from these empirical examples to refine and develop theories in this subfield.

Works cited

[1] Saxenian, AnnaLee. 2005. “From Brain Drain to Brain Circulation: Transnational Communities and Regional Upgrading in India and China.” Studies in Comparative International Development 40(2):35-61.

[2] Kapur, Devesh, and John McHale. 2005. Give Us Your Best and Brightest: The Global Hunt for Talent and Its Impact on the Developing World. Washington, D.C.: Center for Global Development.

Li, Wei, and Lucia Lo. 2012. “New Geographies of Migration?: A Canada-U.S. Comparison of Highly Skilled Chinese and Indian Migration.” Journal of Asian American Studies 15(1):1-34.

[3] Shachar, Ayelet. 2006. “The Race for Talent: Highly Skilled Migrants and Competitive Immigration Regimes.” New York University Law Review 81:148-206.

[4] Berman, Elizabeth Popp. 2014. “Not Just Neoliberalism: Economization in US Science and Technology Policy.” Science, Technology & Human Values 39(3):397-431.

[5] Walsh, James. 2008. “Navigating Globalization: Immigration Policy in Canada and Australia, 1945-2007.” Sociological Forum 23(4):786-813.

Walsh, James P. 2011. “Quantifying citizens: neoliberal restructuring and immigrant selection in Canada and Australia.” Citizenship Studies 15(6-7):861-79.

[6] Cox, Adam B., and Eric A. Posner. 2007. “The Second Order Structure of Immigration Law.” Stanford Law Review 59(4):809-56.

Motomura, Hiroshi. 2007. “Choosing Immigrants, Making Citizens.” Stanford Law Review 59(4):857-70.

Robertson, Shanthi. 2013. Transnational Student-Migrants and the State: The Education-Migration Nexus. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.