The ESG Initiative at the Wharton School


Migration and Organizations Conference elevates the important relationship between migration and business

In its fifth edition on October 21 and 22, the 2022 Migration and Organizations Conference gathered scholars from around the world to advance rigorous research that centers the role of firms in the conversation on migration.

Hosted by the Political Risk and Identity Lab under the ESG Initiative at the Wharton School, the conference is the only of its kind. Exequiel Hernandez, Faculty Co-Director of the Political Risk and Identity Lab and Co-Host of the Migration and Organizations Conference, shared how “There are a number of think tanks on immigration and immigration policy, and there are many scholars studying other aspects of immigration, but as business schools, we focus on the role of firms.”

“The nature of our immigration conversation is such that you don’t hear anyone talking about firms being a really key player in solving immigration issues,” Hernandez noted, “but everything that immigrants do as far as the economy they do in firms.”

Simply put, “We can’t talk about immigration without talking about firms,” Hernandez stated.

Hernandez hosts the annual conference alongside Dan Wang of Columbia Business School, Elena Kulchina of the Poole College of Management at NC State University, and Prithwiraj Choudhury of Harvard Business School.

After meeting each other and finding a research community amongst themselves, they set out to find others doing this work and to advance the best research at the intersection of migration and business.

Dan Wang, Co-Director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise and Lambert Family Associate Professor of Social Enterprise at Columbia Business School, explained the importance of this field. “If you don’t consider organizations in trying to understand the role of migrants in the economy, you’re missing a huge portion of the way that migrants create value.”

In its first edition in 2017, there were just 14 scholars gathered by word of mouth for a half day conference. It’s exploded in the years since, both in size and scope. Wang shared that, “We expanded our reach to not just scholars within business schools across the world, but also across disciplines such as economic, sociology, and political science. Folks didn’t realize this research community existed.”

The research showcase drives the conference and the featured research reflects the expansion of the field. In its early years, researchers mainly studied high-skilled immigrants, because management departments in business schools typically studied large organizations and established firms – groups that typically hire immigrants on skill-based visas.

In this edition of the conference, there was a shift, with several papers focused on how refugees and undocumented immigrants impact firm behavior. For Wang, “That’s the really exciting frontier – to account for the diversity of immigrant pathways and to explore how that affects how firms think about the varied stakeholders.”

These new ideas come from the mixing of folks with different perspectives. Wang highlighted how, “We heard from scholars who have lived experiences that mirror the very things that they’re studying, such as undocumented immigration or refugee entrepreneurship, and these kinds of experiences affect firms and firm decision making.”

This also addresses a larger issue. Wang explained, “Within academia there are serious barriers to achieving representation and this is one avenue where we really have a platform to elevate voices that are traditionally overlooked by elevating not only the topic but also the personal perspective of the folks who are advancing those topics.”

The diversity of thought made for a lively conference, and especially productive Q&A sessions following each research presentation. As Hernandez put it, “Just like talking to other writers makes you a better writer, talking to other researchers makes you a better researcher. Having someone who can give you critical feedback, who is interested in similar issues, and can use the same vocabulary, makes the work better.”

Hernandez enthusiastically shared how conference attendees have met here and gone on to co-author studies. He articulated how “Research doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it’s a very human endeavor. You get ideas by talking to others.”

Building a pipeline of researchers studying migration and organizations has been one of the underlying goals of the conference since its founding. A professor himself, Hernandez discussed how, “Those of us who are professors train our doctoral students who then become professors who train their students and so it’s a virtuous cycle, but it’s just getting started.”

An emerging conference priority is to codify the knowledge and summarize it in a way that is digestible and relatable for the target audience, as opposed to just those with domain or methodological knowledge.

It’s increasingly important to communicate between groups due to an increase in involvement of businesses as they realize the damage that politicization of immigration could bring.

Hernandez explained, “The most salient example would be tech firms not being able to hire enough H1B workers in the US. They’re seeing the damage that would happen if they don’t have access to the talent and ideas that immigrants bring and they’re getting increasingly involved.”

Already, many of the researchers in attendance work to impact policy and practice through their research, whether that be through contributing testimony to congress or working with immigration think tanks.

Looking towards the future, Wang imagines that “If there were a practitioner-facing version of this conference, it would not only involve business leaders, but also policymakers. They would have a lot to learn from each other.”