Economic Mobility Project

Immigration: Wages, Education and Mobility

Introduction

Most economists believe that immigration, like trade, is on balance good for America. But the term "on balance" masks an important issue: whether immigration, like trade, hurts some Americans while helping others. More specifically, what is the impact of immigration on inequality and economic mobility in America?

Trends in Immigration

Recent debate reflects that many Americans are concerned about both the scale and character of immigration to the United States. As Figure 1 shows, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of legal immigrants has been rising steadily since the 1960s, from about 320,000 per year to nearly a million per year in both the 1990s and 2000s. In addition to these legal entrants, over 500,000 immigrants arrive or remain illegally in the United States each year. So, in recent years, a total of about 1.5 million immigrants have arrived in the United States annually, more than a third of them illegally. One result of these high immigration rates is that the percentage of U.S. residents who are foreign-born increased from 4.7 percent in 1970 to 12.7 percent in 2003. Because many immigrants tend to be in their prime child-bearing years, and because they tend to have more children than non-immigrants, the percentage of resident children who have foreign-born parents is even higher, at about 20 percent.