Data collection amid policy chaos: a progress report

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I’ve conducted and transcribed 17 interviews so far this summer, 13 with people currently working in India and four with people currently working in the U.S. holding H-1B visas. Since our last meeting, there have been major policy changes to both the H-1B program in the U.S. and the student visa program, with significant implications for students’ academic plans for the fall and ability to stay in the country.

At the end of June, Trump blocked the issuance of H-1B and J-1 visas, which also bars migrants from entering the country on an H-1B visa, until at least the end of the year. While the order does not seem to affect migrants currently in the U.S. on a current H-1B visa, it might complicate visa renewals, and limit migrants’ ability to leave the country for an ambiguous period of time. Last week, ICE announced an end to a waiver implemented at the beginning of the COVID shutdown, which allowed international students taking online classes to remain in the country on an F-1 or M-1 visa. The change in the policy stipulates that international students must be taking in-person classes to maintain visa status, which creates health risks and particular complications for students whose universities are online-only in the fall.

I am waiting for the dust to settle on both of these orders before interviewing H-1B holders and F-1 holders on these topics, as the news has unfolded quickly in the last few weeks and plans are changing. In the interest of giving respondents some time to process these developments for themselves and not overburden them during a busy and stressful time (and to collect data that more accurately reflects the broader context) I am going to wait a few more weeks before interviewing people on these two topics, though they are very relevant to my project.

As such, I’ve been focusing on interviewing return migrants in India. I’ve found data collection during the shutdown to be both challenging and rewarding. Social distancing has created some unique logistical complications, from travel restrictions preventing in-person interviews to technical issues with connectivity and WhatsApp, to finding a time with the nine-and-a-half-hour time change when both my respondents and I are awake and not working.

But the particularities of this moment have led to a surprising richness of data collection. First, because many respondents have more flexible schedules working from home, they are not in a rush to get through the interview, and I’ve found the interviews have lasted longer and respondents are more open to sharing with me. I’ve also tried to leverage the unique moment as a point of contrast for people’s “normal” daily lives before the pandemic, to highlight specific routines, work experiences or behaviors that individuals normally would not be attuned to. Because I’m not able to observe respondents’ office settings in person, I’m trying to pull out as much detail and specificity about their workplace experiences in the interviews themselves.

The nature of the pandemic and the way it’s impacted my respondents’ lives has offered new perspectives into my research questions as well. Challenges related to working from home, balancing childcare responsibilities with a spouse, and navigating expectations from bosses, has given me new insight into the tricky balance of responsibilities and pressures that many respondents in my sample face, especially working moms. And even before the changes to the H-1B in the U.S. were announced, prior travel restrictions and the heightened significance of citizenship has raised some questions for respondents currently living in the United States about their long-term settlement plans, wanting to be closer to family, and having concerns about visa processing while immigration offices are closed.

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About Liz Jacobs

Elizabeth Jacobs is a Doctoral Candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research spans the areas of migration, globalization, and immigrant incorporation and centers on the global flows of people, knowledge, and culture. Liz’s current research agenda considers how state, corporate, and academic institutions enable and constrain global mobility. Liz is conducting a mixed-methods dissertation project that aims to answer long-standing questions about skilled migration and return migration using novel data sources. She is constructing a new dataset of migration histories, using employment history data from LinkedIn to study the migration behavior of skilled migrants in the United States. Specifically, she is examining how these flows are shaped by gender ideologies, and how public and private institutions collaborate and conflict as they shape global migration.