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Immigrant Workers in the U.S. Labor Force

Debates about illegal immigration, border security, skill levels of workers, unemployment, job growth and competition, and entrepreneurship all rely, to some extent, on perceptions of immigrants’ role in the U.S. labor market.  These views are often shaped as much by politics and emotion as by facts.

To better frame these debates, this short analysis provides data on immigrants in the labor force at the current time of slowed immigration, high unemployment, and low job growth and highlights eight industries where immigrants are especially vital.

How large a share of the labor force are they and how does that vary by particular industry? How do immigrants compare to native-born workers in their educational attainment and occupational profiles?

The answers matter because our economy is dependent on immigrant labor now and for the future. The U.S. population is aging rapidly as the baby boom cohort enters old age and retirement. As a result, the labor force will increasingly depend upon immigrants and their children to replace current workers and fill new jobs. This analysis puts a spotlight on immigrant workers to examine their basic trends in the labor force and how these workers fit into specific industries and occupations of interest.

This data analysis primarily uses the 2010 Current Population Survey (CPS) to examine workers by nativity, but also uses Census data and the American Community Survey (ACS) in Figure 1. Both the CPS and ACS questionnaires identify immigrants by their birthplace, but not by their legal status. The terms foreign-born and immigrant are used interchangeably in this analysis to refer to anyone born outside the United States who was not a citizen at birth. This population includes naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary migrants (including H-1B workers and students), refugees, asylum seekers, and, to the extent to which they are counted, unauthorized immigrants.

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