Blog Post

EU immigration to the US: where is it coming from, and is brain drain real?

In today’s world of ever-increasing mobility, who is leaving Europe? In this piece, we examine the immigrants leaving the EU for the US. How many and how skilled are these immigrants? Is there evidence of brain drain?

By: and Date: September 16, 2015 Global Economics & Governance Tags & Topics

In the period between 1998 and 2013, an average of 61 649 EU nationals received lawful permanent resident status in the US each year. Lawful permanent residency, also referred to as “a green card”, gives immigrants basically the same rights as US citizens (with the exception of the right to vote) for life. Most importantly, a green card allows immigrants to work for any US company or set up their own company in the US.

The European Union’s share in worldwide immigration to the US is quite small. In 2013, 54 356 EU nationals received green card status in the US. This represents only 0.01% of the total EU population in 2013 and 5.5% of all green cards issued by the US in that year. These numbers have been somewhat higher in the past (see figure 1).

FIGURE 1

GChoi_Rveugelers_16-09-15-1

Source: Bruegel calculations based on the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security

The following figures show where these EU immigrants to the US come from. We have divided the EU into four regions.

  • East: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia
  • North: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden
  • South: Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, and Spain
  • West: Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Figure 2 compares the regions’ shares in EU-US immigration to their shares in total EU population (we consider the averages of the period between 2010 and 2013). We see that most of EU immigration to the US comes from Eastern Europe. Note that the share of the East in immigration is substantially higher than its share in population. This shows that their contribution to immigration is disproportionally high compared to those of the other regions. The North displays the opposite phenomenon; it is responsible for only a small portion of EU-US immigration considering its large share in EU population. The same applies for Southern European countries. Now consider Western Europe. The United Kingdom and Ireland are overrepresented in EU to US immigration; their share in immigration is twice as high as their share in population.

FIGURE 2

GChoi_Rveugelers_16-09-15-2

Source: Bruegel calculations based on the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security

When we examine trends over time (1998-2013), we see a gradual decline, especially since 2006, in the absolute number of immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is reflected in a decline in the East’s share in total EU immigration to the US. Figure 3 below shows the regions’ shares in total EU-US immigration and how those shares have changed since 1998.

FIGURE 3

GChoi_Rveugelers_16-09-15-3

Source: Bruegel calculations based on the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security

The following graph (Figure 4) looks at individual EU countries. The countries with the greatest overrepresentation in green card numbers (given their relatively small shares in population) are Bulgaria, Ireland, and Lithuania, with shares in immigration three times higher than their shares in population. Estonia, Latvia, Poland, and Romania also have immigration rates higher than what their population size would predict. But the most striking example is the United Kingdom, whose share in immigration is almost twice as high as its share in population, despite its large share in total EU population. The low immigration to population ratio in the South holds for all South European countries and is especially noticeable in Spain and Italy.

FIGURE 4

GChoi_Rveugelers_16-09-15-4

Source: Bruegel calculations based on the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security

Employment-based immigration from the EU to the US

A US green card can be obtained through various means. Most immigrants receive green cards through family members who are US citizens or permanent lawful residents (about 65%). A smaller portion (16% of all green cards issued by the US in 2013) of immigrants receive green cards through their US employers, and this process is known as employment-based immigration. Although small in number, this category of immigrants typically includes exceptionally skilled individuals.

It is important to consider that US employment-based immigration requires US employers to petition on the immigrant employee’s behalf (pay the necessary fees, file the extensive paperwork, and deal with the US immigration system and Department of Labour). This entails that the immigrant employee must be a valuable asset to the employer.

The US reserves about 140 000 green cards each year for employment-based immigration. Preference is given to highly skilled immigrants. Green cards are also reserved, albeit in smaller numbers, for immigrants who establish companies large enough (and with enough funds). These immigrants are able to petition for themselves.

FIGURE 5

GChoi_Rveugelers_16-09-15-5

Source: CRS Summary of §§203(a), 203(b), and 204 of INA; 8 U.S.C. §1153

The EU is much better represented in employment-based immigration to the US than in total immigration. This means that the immigrants coming into the US from Europe are more skilled than immigrants coming into the US from other world regions. In 2013, 18 171 EU immigrants obtained green cards through employment. One in every three EU nationals obtaining green cards obtained them through employment, and 11% all employment-based green cards issued by the US were given to EU nationals. The EU’s share in US employment-based immigration is twice as high as its share in total US immigration.

Figure 5 shows the shares in employment-based immigration for the four regions in the EU and how the shares have changed over time.

FIGURE 6

GChoi_Rveugelers_16-09-15-6

Source: Bruegel calculations based on the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security

Comparing figures 3 and 5 shows that Eastern Europe is underrepresented in employment-based immigration considering its share in total immigration. Southern European countries, on the other hand, have similar shares in employment-related and total immigration. Northern countries have a larger share in employment-related immigration than in total immigration (which reflects the higher skill level of immigrants from Northern Europe). Western Europe, however, has the highest ratio of share in employment-based immigration to total immigration thanks to the UK (Ireland’s share in employment-based immigration is comparable to its share in total immigration).

The United Kingdom is by far the most important source for employment-based immigration from the EU to the US. Almost 6 000 UK nationals obtained green cards through employment in 2013, which was about one-third of all employment-related green cards issued to EU nationals that year and 45% of all green cards issued to UK nationals.

In comparison, about 2 100 employment-based green cards went to French nationals in 2013, which represented about 11% of all EU employment-related green cards and 47% of all green cards issued to French nationals that year. For Germany, this number was about 1 900 (only one-third of all green cards received by Germans). Italy and Spain each sent about 1 000 employment-related immigrants that year, which was about 35% and 39%, respectively, of the total number of immigrants they sent to the US.

In Eastern Europe, Poland and Romania contributed the largest numbers of employment-related immigrants (1 100 and 900, respectively, in 2013). These numbers were 17% and 23% of total green cards issued to their citizens. Note that the immigration coming from these countries was less employment-heavy in comparison to other EU countries.

In summary, the emigration of EU citizens to the US is not characterized by overcrowded flights and waiting times. It is, rather, a small and steady flow. Nevertheless, this small flow possesses exceptional skill and education levels. Behind the deceivingly low numbers is a huge potential for wealth creation that is permanently migrating to the US. The effects of this migration can be significant for many countries, especially the UK and France. Therefore, it is important that we know more about why these exceptionally talented Europeans move to the US, what contributions they make to the US economy, and, above all, what contributions the EU could have enjoyed if they had stayed.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

View comments
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Nov
21-22
13:30

Vision Europe Summit 2016

The 2016 Vision Europe Summit is titled "Redesigning European Migration and Refugee Policy" and will be held in Lisbon on 21-22 November 2016.

Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Lisbon
Read article More by this author

Blog Post

Zsolt Darvas

Single market access from outside the EU: three key prerequisites

In relative terms, Norway’s current net financial contribution to the EU is similar to the UK’s. Switzerland and Liechtenstein pay surprisingly little, while Iceland is a net beneficiary. Relative to their population, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein received about twice as large an inflow of EU immigrants as the UK. These countries also have to adopt the vast majority of EU regulation to gain access to the single market.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: July 19, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol

UK political elite used poverty & immigration fears to secure leave vote

The bulk of UK Leave voters come from disadvantaged areas, and perceive immigration as a threat. But significant exceptions to this trend in England and most importantly in Scotland make it hard to draw a simple causal link between wealth, immigration, and voting patterns.

By: Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 29, 2016
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Uuriintuya Batsaikhan

The day after Brexit: what do we know?

With the UK referendum on EU membership on 23 June, Europe is contemplating the practical consequences of a vote to leave.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan and Bruegel Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 22, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Zsolt Darvas

What is the age profile of UK immigrants?

The bulk of immigrants to the UK from 2008-2014 were 20-30 years old, and many of them are in work. But as UK unemployment is close to a historical low since 1975, it is hard to see how immigrants have taken away the jobs of natives on a large scale.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 8, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Guntram B. Wolff

European financing for the European refugee crisis

Protecting the EU's external borders is a shared task, which can be most effectively carried out if paid for with common funding. A tax on carbon combined with borrowing could fund refugee policy and also help the EU achieve its climate goals.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: May 11, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Guntram B. Wolff

Making the EU-Turkey refugee deal work

The EU deal with Turkey reached on 18 March is problematic, but without a deal the EU’s external borders would have collapsed completely. Now the EU needs to support Greece and increase the number of refugees taken directly from Turkey.

By: Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: April 11, 2016
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

Guntram B. Wolff

The refugee crisis: A European call for action

Open Letter by the conveners of the Vision Europe Summit regarding the refugee crisis in Europe and the necessity to act now.

By: Aart de Geus, Artur Santos Silva, Guntram B. Wolff, Mikko Kosonen, Piero Gastaldo, Robin Niblett and Yves Bertoncini Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 18, 2016
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

Elena Vaccarino
Zsolt Darvas

"Social dumping" and posted workers: a new clash within the EU

European companies often post employees to another EU country to work there temporarily. These ‘posted workers’ must be paid at least the minimum wage of the host country, yet their wages can be lower than the wages of local workers. Now proposals for ‘the same pay for the same work at the same place’ are creating new clashes between EU countries.

By: Elena Vaccarino and Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 7, 2016
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

The long-term impact of migration in Europe

Amidst the short-term drama of the refugee and Schengen crises, it is time to look at the long-term effects of migration on European societies and economies.

Speakers: Pieter Cleppe, Naika Foroutan, Valerie Herzberg and Reinhilde Veugelers Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: February 25, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Uuriintuya Batsaikhan

Child benefits for EU migrants in the UK

Statistics referenced by the House of Commons suggest that 0.26 percent of total UK child benefit claims are paid to EU migrants whose children live in another EU member state. 0.09 percent of all child tax credit claims are made by families with children residing in another EU member state.

By: Uuriintuya Batsaikhan Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: February 18, 2016
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Silvia Merler

EU migration crisis: facts, figures and disappointments

Attempts to stem the flow of refugees to Europe have so far had little success. Two months into 2016, we take a detailed look at the numbers of the refugee crisis and the European response.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: February 12, 2016
Load more posts