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What Do Immigrants Do In America?

A worker processes turkeys at the West Liberty Food processing plant

During economic hard times immigrants are often blamed for taking jobs away from U.S.-born citizens. This recession is no different in that regard. The many incendiary comments aimed at immigrants, especially those here illegally, bandied about the GOP primary reflect that as well.

As job growth has picked up, however, a growing chorus of leaders is pushing for immigration policies that better meet economic demands and help the economy.

Just how do immigrants fit into the U.S. labor market?  A new analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data highlights several key industry sectors and the educational status of immigrant and native workers to examine their role across a broad set of industries and occupations. (Note that these data include workers who are foreign-born, but we do not have any information on their legal status.)

Immigrants are a growing share of the U.S. labor force. This is not too surprising given that many immigrants are motivated to come to the United States to work during their prime working ages. And as immigration has increased in recent decades, that share has risen.  More important, perhaps, is with the baby boomers beginning their swift ascent to “seniordom” (like it or not), continuing immigration means more workers to fill in the gaps left by retirement.

There is a much higher share of working age adults who have not completed high school among the foreign-born than among the U.S.-born.  In part this reflects demand for workers in certain industries such as food services and agriculture, but it also reflects the rising educational standards of the United States.

Immigrants are just as likely as natives to have a graduate degree.  This is a reflection of the U.S. labor market as both a skills incubator and a skills magnet.  International students are drawn to the U.S. for study and many stay on after graduation. Others are educated elsewhere and then find jobs in the U.S. because of the lack of opportunities in their home countries and the better prospects here.

In industries such as information technology, life sciences, and high-tech manufacturing, high-skilled immigrant workers are overrepresented. In these industries, workers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) occupations are more likely to have readily transferable skills than those in other fields, particularly those that require some U.S.-centric legal, business, or cultural skills.

In sectors such as agriculture, food services, and construction, most of the immigrant workers are low-skilled. Foreign-born workers made headway into these jobs because they are typically low-paying and seen as undesirable by U.S.-born workers. We borrow heavily from our neighbor: Mexican workers make up half of all immigrant workers in construction and food services and 84 percent in the agricultural sector.

Immigrants are well-represented in some of the occupations projected to grow the most or the fastest during the next 10 years.  Many of the projected fast-growing jobs are lower-skilled construction occupations (as that industry bounces back). Additional occupations that are predicted to see large growth are also lower-skilled—health and personal aides, food services, childcare, and laborers. It is likely those occupations will continue to be filled in an outsized way by immigrants.

Debates about immigration policy, among presidential candidates or others, could use an infusion of facts based on empirical evidence. Recognizing the valuable role that immigrants play in the U.S. labor market and understanding the opportunity this presents for the United States are foundational to crafting coherent and pragmatic immigration policy.

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