Public Choice

, Volume 160, Issue 1–2, pp 45–63 | Cite as

Doctors with borders: occupational licensing as an implicit barrier to high skill migration

  • Brenton D. Peterson
  • Sonal S. Pandya
  • David Leblang


Research on the political economy of immigration overlooks the specificity of human capital in skilled occupations and its implications for immigration preferences and policymaking. Conclusions that skilled Americans are unconcerned about labor market competition from skilled migrants build on a simple dichotomy between high and low skill migrants. In this article we show that natives turn to occupational licensing regulations as occupation-specific protectionist barriers to skilled migrant labor competition. In practice, high skill natives face labor market competition only from those high-skill migrants who share their occupation-specific skills. Licensure regulations ostensibly serve the public interest by certifying competence, but they can simultaneously be formidable barriers to entry by skilled migrants. From a collective action perspective, skilled natives can more easily secure sub-national, occupation-specific policies than influence national immigration policy. We exploit the unique structure of the American medical profession that allows us to distinguish between public interest and protectionist motives for migrant physician licensure regulations. We show that over the 1973–2010 period states with greater physician control over licensure requirements imposed more stringent requirements for migrant physician licensure and, as a consequence, received fewer new migrant physicians. By our estimates over a third of all US states could reduce their physician shortages by at least 10 percent within 5 years just by equalizing migrant and native licensure requirements. This article advances research on the political economy of immigration and highlights an overlooked dimension of international economic integration: regulatory rent-seeking as a barrier to the cross-national mobility of human capital, and the public policy implications of such barriers.


Occupational licensing High skill immigration Physician shortages US state politics Health care regulation Global human capital flows Skilled professions 



For their assistance with data collection, we are grateful to John Simanski and Michael Hoeferin of the Office of Immigration Statistics, US Department of Homeland Security, and Amber Dushman of the American Medical Association. We gratefully acknowledge financial support from the University of Virginia’s Bankard Fund for Political Economy and Quantitative Collaborative Seed Grant Initiative. For their thoughtful feedback and suggestions, we thank the editors of Public Choice, two anonymous reviewers, Christina Davis, Gary Freeman, Tim Garson, Jason Hicks, Eric Patashnik, Craig Volden, Gay Wehrli, Casey White, and participants at the 2012 Midwest Political Science Association and International Political Economy Society meetings.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Brenton D. Peterson
    • 1
  • Sonal S. Pandya
    • 1
  • David Leblang
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PoliticsUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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