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Diversity Research: Immigrant Workers — Contradictory Trends in a Debate That’s Getting Hotter

  • July 3, 2009

by Susan Welch —

Worldwide, immigration is happening at an unprecedented rate.  In chapter two (“An Upside-Down World”) of The Inclusion Paradox: The Obama Era and the Transformation of Global Diversity Andrés describes a massive global labor musical chairs as workers flow across countries creating labor shortages in some places, job shortages in others. The current global economic crisis makes the immigration trends even more complex.

For example, in certain parts of the world, immigrants and potential migrants are staying put these days, with far-reaching implications. A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute says the economic crisis is having “a deeper and more global effect on the movement of people around the world than any other economic downturn in the post-World War II era of migration.”[1]

Potential émigrés are changing their minds about striking out for different shores. Meanwhile, immigrants are remaining in their newly adopted home countries, but they are struggling—often more than native born —to earn a living. Remittances—money sent back home by immigrants—have decreased sharply in the current economy. But the story goes deeper: Despite an overall drop in remittances, most “sending” countries (home countries of immigrants) still find that dwindling remittance money is one of their steadier sources of income, given today’s economic volatility.[2]  And a new phenomenon is emerging: family members in home countries are sending remittances in the other direction. [3]

In the meantime, a small number of countries are implementing  “pay-to-go schemes that encourage unemployed migrants to return home. In direct response to rising unemployment, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Japan are offering economic incentives such as paid one-way tickets home and lump sum payments typically pegged to unemployment insurance benefits in exchange for migrants’ promise to leave the country for some period of time or even indefinitely.” [4]

In the U.S. the Obama Administration is switching strategy from chasing undocumented workers to chasing the employers who employ them.(U.S. Shifts Strategy on Illicit Work by Immigrants)

Massive Numbers
Globally, immigrants represent about 3 percent of the world’s population and the world’s workers. But their presence in host countries was, prior to the current downturn, having a dramatic effect on the workforce. In the United States, an astounding one of every two new workers was an immigrant. In the United Kingdom, seven of every 10 new workers were immigrants.[5]  As you might guess, changes in migration patterns have strong impact on workforces around the world.

The numbers for the United States illustrate the scope of its own immigration challenges. Americans account for one in every 20 people in the world. On the other hand, the United States is the new home to one of every five migrants worldwide.[6] Even so, migration to the United States has declined. Immigrants from Mexico, the home country for about a third of all foreign-born workers, plummeted roughly 40 percent between 2006 and now.[7]

Some in the United States are cheered by this news; many others likely consider this trend to be neutral, not worrisome. Few realize that thanks to immigration, the United States will experience less aging and fewer workforce shortages than most industrialized countries because of “our higher fertility rate and substantial immigration—which we assimilate better than most other developed countries.”[8] Immigrants are a fountain of youth for the American workforce.

It’s a debate raging now and which will get hotter in 2010 once the Obama Administration passes healthcare reform and sets its sights on immigration reform.


[1]Fix, Michael; Papademetrjou, Demetrios G.; Batalova, Jean; Terrazas, Aaron ; Lin, Serena Yi-Ying ; and Middlestadt, Michelle. Migration and the Global Recession. Migration Policy Institute. September, 2009. Link: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/MPI-BBCreport-Sept09.pdf.

[2]Fix, Michael; Papademetrjou, Demetrios G.; Batalova, Jean; Terrazas, Aaron ; Lin, Serena Yi-Ying ; and Middlestadt, Michelle. Migration and the Global Recession. Migration Policy Institute. September, 2009. Link: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/MPI-BBCreport-Sept09.pdf.

[3] Lacey, Marc. “Money Trickles North as Mexicans Help Relatives,” New York Times, November 15, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/16/world/americas/16mexico.html?scp=1&sq=remittances&st=cse

  [4]Fix, Michael; Papademetrjou, Demetrios G.; Batalova, Jean; Terrazas, Aaron ; Lin, Serena Yi-Ying ; and Middlestadt, Michelle. Migration and the Global Recession. Migration Policy Institute. September, 2009. Link: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/MPI-BBCreport-Sept09.pdf

[5]Fix, Michael; Papademetrjou, Demetrios G.; Batalova, Jean; Terrazas, Aaron ; Lin, Serena Yi-Ying ; and Middlestadt, Michelle. Migration and the Global Recession. Migration Policy Institute. September, 2009. Link: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/MPI-BBCreport-Sept09.pdf.

[6]Fix, Michael; Papademetrjou, Demetrios G.; Batalova, Jean; Terrazas, Aaron ; Lin, Serena Yi-Ying ; and Middlestadt, Michelle. Migration and the Global Recession. Migration Policy Institute. September, 2009. Link: http://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/MPI-BBCreport-Sept09.pdf.

[7]Passel, Jeffrey and Cohn, D’Vera. “Mexican Immigrants: How Many Come? How Many Leave?” Pew Hispanic Center. July 22, 2009. Link: http://pewhispanic.org/reports/report.php?ReportID=112

[8] Howe, Neil and Jackson, Richard. “The World Won’t Be Aging Gracefully. Just the Opposite.” The Washington Post. January 4, 2009. Link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/02/AR2009010202231.html

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