migration and the labor force 3025

Zolberg, A. R., Suhrke, A., & Aguayo, S. (1989)
Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis
in the Developing World. Oxford University Press,
New York.

migration and the
labor force

Harriet Orcutt Duleep and Regan Main

The labor force includes those who work and
those who are unemployed but wish to work. It
is typically defined for a nation as a whole, or for
a demographic or geographic subgroup within a
nation. Migration is the movement of people
across borders. If the borders are within a coun
try, the migration is called internal or domestic
migration, or simply migration. If the borders
divide countries, it is international migration,
with immigration denoting people entering a
country and emigration denoting their exit.
Social scientists interest in internal versus
international migration has waxed and waned
with the ebbs and flows of immigration. When
US immigration was severely restricted in the
1920s, the study of immigration lost its luster;
after the restrictions were lifted in the 1960s, it
reemerged as a hot topic.
Two focal points unite research on domestic
or international migration and the labor force:
how do migrants fare in the new labor market
and what effect does migration have on natives
of the host labor market? Similar methodological
hurdles also shape research on the labor force
and (internal or international) migration. These
include how to discern migrant earnings and
employment trajectories from cross sectional
and cohort data, whether to use the individual,
the family, or the group as the unit of analysis,
and how to disentangle migration effects on a
host regions labor market from the effect of the
host regions labor market on migration.


The dominant model in the study of immigra
tion and the labor market was an assimilation
model spawned in the 1920s University of
Chicago sociology department and associated
with the works of Robert E. Park. This model
portrayed immigrants trajectories in the host
country as a single process relevant to all immi
grants that eventually led to their cultural and
economic assimilation.
Echoing Parks assimilation thesis, but focus
ing on labor market outcomes, Chiswick theo
rized that migrants often lack specific skills that
would permit their home country human capi
tal to be fully valued in the host country labor
market. Assimilation in this context is acquiring
host country specific skills that restore the mar
ket value of the immigrants homeland human
capital. For the US labor market, an obvious
example is English fluency. Empirical research,
based on cross sectional data, suggested that
following an initial period of adjustment, immi
grant earnings grew and generally approached
the earnings of natives with similar years of
schooling and experience after about 15 years
in the US. Analogous findings surfaced in other
immigrant host countries. A review of British
immigration research, for instance, concluded
that labor market conditions improve for immi
grants the longer they live in the host country
(Hatton & Price 1999).
This optimistic picture was shattered in a
series of articles by Borjas. He showed that
recent immigrants started at much lower earn
ings than their predecessors, a decline caused by
changes in the country of origin composition of
US immigration. A decline in immigrant entry
earnings also occurred in other immigrant host
countries (see, for instance, Winkelmanns 1999
study of New Zealand immigration). Tracing
the earnings of earlier immigrant cohorts across
censuses revealed only modest earnings growth,
substantially lower than the cross sectional
prediction. Borjas showed that where immigrant
initial earnings are falling over time, as in
the US and other economically developed coun
tries, pairing the initial earnings of more recent
immigrants with the earnings achieved by earlier
cohorts after 10 15 years in the host country
overstates the earnings growth of the earlier
immigrants: his research invalidates the cross
sectional approach. It does not follow, however,
that the earnings growth of earlier cohorts is a
good predictor of the earnings growth of more
recent cohorts.