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Why Did They Come to the United States? A Profile of Immigrant Scientists and Engineers

NSF 07-324 | June 2007 | PDF format PDF  

Over the past decade, both the U.S. college-educated workforce and the science and engineering (S&E) workforce have grown dramatically (NSF/SRS 2005). An important factor in that growth has been immigration: in 2003, of the 21.6 million scientists and engineers in the United States, 16% (3,352,000) were immigrants.[1] Although it is simple to classify all of these individuals together under one label, doing so masks the great diversity within the group. It includes individuals from every continent in the world including those who came to the United States as infants, as well as those who came when they were well into their professional careers. It also includes those who were fully educated in the United States, some who were fully educated abroad, and some with a combination of degrees earned in the United States and abroad.

This InfoBrief describes some of this group's major characteristics in 2003 and presents an analysis of reasons reported by immigrant scientists and engineers for first coming to the United States for 6 months or longer.

Demographic Profile

In 2003, almost two-thirds (64%) of U.S. immigrant scientists and engineers were naturalized citizens, compared with 40% of the overall U.S. immigrant population (U.S. Census Bureau 2001), and another 11% were temporary residents (table 1).[2] Three-fourths of all immigrant scientists and engineers were born in Asia or Europe (56% and 19%, respectively). Individuals born in Central America (including Mexico), the Caribbean, and South America account for another 15% (table 2).

TABLE 1. Characteristics of immigrant and native-born U.S. citizen scientists and engineers in the United States: 2003.

  Table 1 Source Data: Excel file

TABLE 2. Birthplace of immigrant scientists and engineers in the United States: 2003.

  Table 2 Source Data: Excel file

Immigrants made up a substantial proportion of minority scientists and engineers in the United States.[3] About 1.7 million (83%) of the 2 million Asian scientists and engineers in the United States in 2003 were immigrants. Similarly, 42% of Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, 35% of Hispanic, and 15% of black scientists and engineers were immigrants.

Immigration, Educational, and Occupational Characteristics

Almost two-thirds of immigrant scientists and engineers (63%) came to the United States when they were between 18 and 34. Another 24% came when they were younger than 18, and 14% came when they were 35 or older. Seventy-five percent of immigrant scientists and engineers have been in the United States 10 years or more (table 3).

TABLE 3. Birthplace of immigrant scientists and engineers, by region and other characteristics: 2003.

  Table 3 Source Data: Excel file

Most immigrant scientists and engineers earned either all of their degrees abroad or all of their degrees in the United States. Fewer earned degrees both abroad and in the United States. About two-fifths of immigrant scientists and engineers earned all of their degrees in the United States, about two-fifths earned all of their degrees abroad, and about one-fifth earned some degrees abroad and some in the United States (table 3).

A higher percentage of immigrant than of native-born U.S. citizen scientists and engineers have postbaccalaureate degrees, especially doctoral degrees (9% versus 4%), as their highest degree attained. They were also more likely than native-born U.S. citizens to have earned their highest degree in an S&E field (63% versus 53%) and to report working in an S&E occupation (31% versus 20%) (table 3).

Reasons for Coming to the United States

The primary reasons that immigrant scientists and engineers gave for first coming to the United States vary according to their demographic and educational characteristics, their country of origin, and the time period when they came. They most often cited family-related reasons (37%), followed by educational opportunities (30%), job or economic opportunities (21%), and scientific or professional infrastructure (5%). Seven percent of immigrant scientists and engineers cited other reasons (table 3).

Not surprisingly, those who came when they were younger than 18 came primarily for family-related reasons (about 70%). Those who came when they were between the ages of 18 and 34 came most frequently for educational opportunities (39%), and those who came at age 35 or older came equally for family-related reasons and job or economic opportunities (about 34% each) (figure 1).

FIGURE 1. Most important reason given by immigrant scientists and engineers for decision to come to the United States, by age at first entry: 2003.

  Figure 1 Source Data: Excel file

Reasons for coming also vary by when the immigrants came to the United States. The most prevalent reasons (40%) given by those who immigrated before 1994 were family related. About 31% came for educational opportunities and 17% for job or economic opportunities. Those who came in 1994 or later, nearly all of whom came to the United States when they were 18 or older, were more likely to cite job or economic opportunities as the primary reason they immigrated (33%). Among these more recent immigrants, 28% came for family-related reasons and 26% came for educational opportunities (figure 2).

FIGURE 2. Most important reason given by immigrant scientists and engineers for decision to come to the United States, by year of first entry: 2003.

  Figure 2 Source Data: Excel file

Reasons for immigration differ by region of birth.[4] Except for Africa and Asia, immigrants from every region reported that the most common reasons for coming were family related. Immigrants from Europe and North America were more likely to report coming for job or economic opportunities than individuals from other regions. Higher percentages of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and South America than of those from other regions reported that they came for educational opportunities. Higher percentages of immigrants from Europe, North and Central America and the Caribbean than of those from other regions came for family-related reasons (table 3). Additional details on selected countries/economies can be found in table 4.

TABLE 4. Birthplace of immigrant scientists and engineers, by selected countries/economies and other characteristics: 2003.

  Table 4 Source Data: Excel file

Reasons for coming also varied by S&E occupation and degree field. Immigrants with S&E occupations in 2003 were less likely to have come for family-related reasons than those with S&E-related or non-S&E occupations or those who were not employed. For those with S&E occupations, educational opportunities were the most prevalent reason for coming. A higher percentage of computer and mathematical scientists than of other S&Es came for job or economic opportunities. Higher percentages of life scientists and physical scientists than of other S&Es came for the U.S. scientific or professional infrastructure (table 5).

TABLE 5. Immigrant scientists and engineers most important reason for coming to the United States, by occupation and educational characteristics: 2003.

  Table 5 Source Data: Excel file

Among those with S&E degrees (regardless of occupation), higher percentages of those whose highest degree was in computer and mathematical sciences, physical sciences, or engineering than of those whose highest degree was in social sciences came for educational opportunities or for job or economic opportunities. Higher percentages of those whose highest degree was in social and related sciences, life sciences, S&E-related, or non-S&E fields came for family-related reasons. Access to scientific or professional infrastructure was not a major factor for coming to the U.S. for S&E degree holders; those whose highest degree was in life sciences or physical sciences did, however, cite this reason more often than those with highest degrees in other S&E fields (table 5).

Immigrants whose highest degree was a U.S. master's or a doctorate were more likely than those with bachelor's degrees to come for educational opportunities. Those whose highest degree was a non-U.S. master's most frequently came for job or economic opportunities. Individuals whose highest degree was a non-U.S. doctorate most frequently came for the U.S. scientific or professional infrastructure. Those with highest degrees at the bachelor's, master's or doctoral level outside the United States were less likely to come for educational reasons and more frequently reported coming for job or economic opportunities than those who had highest degrees at those levels, but earned in the United States (table 5).

Data Notes

Data presented in this report are from the 2003 Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT), which integrates three large demographic and workforce surveys of individuals conducted by the National Science Foundation: the National Survey of College Graduates, the National Survey of Recent College Graduates, and the Survey of Doctorate Recipients. These surveys are of 102,350 individuals representing a population of about 21.6 million scientists and engineers, including people trained in S&E or S&E-related fields or working in S&E or S&E-related occupations. The wording of the question on reasons for coming to the United States was as follows: "Which factors were important in your decision to first come to the United States for six months or longer?" (Mark yes or no for each item). The response categories were: family-related reasons, educational opportunities in the United States, job or economic opportunities, scientific or professional infrastructure in my field, and other–specify. Respondents were then asked to identify the most important reason of all those they selected.

For further information, contact

Nirmala Kannankutty
Human Resources Statistics Program
Division of Science Resources Statistics
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965
Arlington, VA 22230
nkannank@nsf.gov
703-292-7797

or

Joan Burrelli
Science and Engineering Indicators Program
Division of Science Resources Statistics
National Science Foundation
4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965
Arlington, VA 22230
jburrell@nsf.gov
703-292-7793

References

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics (NSF/SRS). 2005. 2003 College Graduates in the U.S. Workforce: A Profile. NSF 06–304. Arlington, VA.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2001. Census 2000 Special Tabulations STP–159. Available at www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/foreign/datatbls.html. Accessed January 2007.

 

Footnotes

[1]  Scientists and engineers includes all individuals with a bachelor's degree or higher in an S&E or related field or individuals with a bachelor's degree or higher in other fields who work in an S&E or related occupation. Immigrants are defined as individuals who were temporary residents, permanent residents, or naturalized U.S. citizens.

[2]  The surveys on which these data are based undercount the number and percentage of foreign born, especially temporary residents. The surveys do not include immigrants with only non-U.S. degrees who came to the United States after April 1, 2000.

[3]  The term minority includes Asians, blacks, Hispanics, American Indians/Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders.

[4]  For a complete list of countries/economies included in each region, see http://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/docs/location.html.


National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics
Why Did They Come to the United States? A Profile of Immigrant Scientists and Engineers
Arlington, VA (NSF 07-324) [June 2007]


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