Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Richard Alba

Committee Members

Héctor Cordero Guzmán

John Torpey

Subject Categories

Immigration Law | Migration Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Work, Economy and Organizations


Highly Skilled Immigration, Visa Policies, Globalization, Immigrants' Rights, Work/Family/Legal Trajectories


My dissertation proposes an institutional and agency approach in order to answer a new question to a new set of conditions, processes, and architecture of the new immigration trend for highly skilled immigration in the United States that emerged in the 1990s. The complexification of visa policies for highly skilled immigrants since the 1990s forces many immigrants to follow a multi-step legal pathway to acquire legal permanent residency: first, immigrants have a variety of temporary legal statuses or no legal status, and in a subsequent stage they achieve legal permanent residency. The central question that organizes the dissertation has two parts: first, how and why visa policies shape the formation, scope, and rights of highly skilled immigration; second, how and why visa policies affect highly skilled immigrants’ work, family, and legal trajectories. The institutional approach investigates the changes that have occurred in highly skilled immigration to the United States during the past two decades, focusing particular attention on the changes and dynamics of highly skilled labor migration, the changes in immigration laws and visa policies, the place of national dynamics and globalizing dynamics on the growth of temporary highly skilled immigration vis-à-vis permanent immigration, and the direction, scope, and rights of highly skilled immigration attached to each legal track, temporary and permanent. From a normative standpoint, it is more beneficial for the destination country and for highly skilled immigrants themselves to have permanent residency status instead of temporary status. This fact emerges when one analyzes the rights that each legal path grants to highly skilled immigrants. I refer to membership in democratic nation-states under permanent migration status as belonging with inclusion. This is a membership that values a legality based on certainty, autonomy, and rights. For the most part there is no significant differentiation when citizens and permanent residents are compared, with some exceptions, such as political rights, availability of civil service jobs, or the possibility of deportation. The growth of temporary immigration in the last twenty years has challenged this trend in democratic societies, because immigrants’ membership has been put into question. Highly skilled immigrants under temporary labor programs work, raise children, buy homes, pay taxes, and get credentials; but they do so under conditions and a type of membership that restrict their rights, and with a legal status that values uncertainty and vulnerability. Furthermore, time spent in the United States on a temporary visa neither counts toward nor qualifies immigrants for permanent residency, or even naturalization. I define temporary immigration in terms of membership to democratic societies, as belonging with partial inclusion. Temporary immigrants belong to their society in many ways, but belonging does not imply the achievement of substantive rights, benefits, and an inclusive path to full membership. The agency approach shifts the analysis from institutions to the lives of highly skilled immigrants. I coined two terms for explaining how and why highly skilled immigrants build their pathways to legalization: entrepreneurial ethos and privatization of risk. Based on the narratives highly skilled immigrants gave about their legal trajectories in thirty semi-structured interviews, I identified three pathways immigrants follow to legal permanent residency. These paths are based on highly skilled immigrants’ legal experiences and are not fixed or pre- established and did not follow any institutionally defined legal direction. The first path to legalization, followed by 33 percent of interviewees, is a path in which immigrants do not face any legal or work contingency. Thus, the path is smooth, linear, and without interruptions. The second path, which 50 percent of participants followed, is a path in which immigrants face fluctuations in their legal path because of contingencies they face, such as job loss, and immigrants acquire legal permanent residency through either family-based or employment-based sponsorship. The third path, which represents 17 percent of interviewees, is a path in which immigrants also face contingencies, such as problems getting sponsorship for their visas, but unlike the second one, immigrants in this path self-sponsored their legal permanent residency. Just as entrepreneurial ethos and privatization of risk describes immigrants’ agency in building their legal trajectories to legal permanent residency, their agency does not circumscribe to building their legal status. Uncertain and unstable legality permeates immigrants’ work and family life. Highly skilled immigrants’ family and work trajectories are interwoven with legal trajectories. The achievement of legal permanent residency represents a turning point in the lives of highly skilled immigrants because it entails legal certainty and stability, including the achievement of substantive rights that are vital for their lives in the United States, such as right of residency, economic, social, and family rights.