Both President Obama and his GOP critics on Capitol Hill agree on one thing: the U.S. immigration system is “broken.” But a new study suggests the problems with the system may go deeper than most people realize.
In a paper to be published in an upcoming edition of the American Sociological Review, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brown University determined that there is systematic bias against Latin American applicants for legal permanent resident status in the United States – commonly known as a Green Card.
Ben A. Rissing, a professor at Brown University, and Emilio J. Castilla, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, studied applications for labor certification, an essential first step in obtaining a Green Card. They looked at every application, either granted or denied, over a period of 40 months. Among other things, after controlling for variables including salary, industry, job title, location, and prior visa history, they determined that applicants from Asian countries were more likely to be approved than applicants from Latin America.
In an email, Rissing noted that in their analysis, “Applications describing Asian immigrants are approved 90.5 percent of the time, while 66.8 percent of applications describing Latin American immigrants are approved.”
On average, he said, “Applications describing Asian immigrants are 13.3 percent more likely to be approved, while applications describing Latin American immigrants are 23 percent less likely to be approved, relative to Canadian immigrants (our reference category in both instances), all else equal.”
Rissing and Castilla don’t suggest that the discrimination is either intentional on the part of the agents reviewing applications or a matter of policy. The problem appears to be that the agents making the decision are doing so based on limited information. The agents who review the labor certification applications are not required to review an applicant’s entire file. This, according to the researchers, may encourage them to take unconscious shortcuts.
Immigration officials conduct irregular audits of the application process, in which an agent who receives a more complete file considers applications a second time.
“When applications are audited, and reviewed with detailed employment-relevant information, we don't observe statistically significant differences among applications describing immigrant workers from different world regions,” Rissing said.
In other words, when immigration officials are given complete file to work from, the bias disappears.
The researchers say the disparity may be based on unconscious biases. They cite existing research that shows Americans, in general, tend to view Asians as more competent and Latin Americans as less competent.
“Every year, tens of thousands of foreign immigrants seek jobs in this country and government agents—who are tasked with evaluating the qualifications of those prospective workers—play a major role in the hiring process,” said Rissing in a press release. “Our research shows that despite laws that have been on the books for decades forbidding discrimination on the basis of nationality, government agents’ labor certification approvals depend a great deal on the job candidate’s citizenship.”
Rissing and Castillo suggest that the problem might be solved if immigration agents were provided applicants’ full files from the start. Alternatively, they suggested, applications could be scrubbed of information identifying an applicant’s country of origin, name, and other information unrelated to their ability to perform a job, but which might give the agent a sense of what country they are from.
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