Unemployment for Immigrants and the US-Born

Written by Steven A. Camarota


February 18, 2009
Picture Bleak for Less-Educated Black & Hispanic Americans
By Steven A. Camarota 
WASHINGTON (February 18, 2009) - The Center for Immigration Studies has prepared a detailed employment breakdown for immigrants and native-born Americans based on December 2008 data, the latest publicly available. (The Department of Labor generally does not separate out unemployment statistics for immigrants and the native-born.) Among US-born blacks and Hispanics without a high school degree, unemployment is 24.7 percent and 16.2 percent respectively - two to three times the national rate.


Policy Discussion

The above figure paints a very grim picture for young and less-educated native-born Americans. In some ways the situation is actually worse than these numbers suggest: First, these bleak numbers are from December 2008, and employment is expected to rise for most of 2009. What's more, young and less-educated workers have had a very difficult time in the labor market even before the current recession. In October 2007, before the start of the current downturn, unemployment among US-born high school dropouts was 11.7 and for those with only a high school degree ages 18-29 it was 10.5 percent. Moreover, in general, the share of such workers holding a job has been declining for about three decades. Both in the short term and the long term things have been very difficult to less-educated Americans.

The difficulty that young workers are experiencing is particularly worrisome because it is as a young person that people learn the skills necessary to function in the workplace, such as showing up on time, following supervisors' instructions, and interacting with customers. There is evidence that people who are poorly attached to the labor force in their youth tend to stay that way throughout their lives.

Illegal Immigration. The latest data shows 22.1 million immigrants holding jobs in the United States. (And immigrant is anyone, legal or illegal, now living in the United States who was not a US citizen at birth.) Of the 22.1 immigrants holding a job, prior research indicates that about 7 million in the survey are in the country illegally, though this may have declined since hitting a peak in 2007. Some number of illegal workers, perhaps one million, are thought to be missed by the survey. The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants have a high school degree or less. As a result, illegals are primarily employed in construction, building cleaning and maintenance, food preparation, service and processing, transportation and moving occupations, and agriculture. With the exception of agriculture (which accounts for only a small share of illegal workers - less than one in five), the majority of workers in these occupational categories are still native-born Americans. Most have a high school degree or less.a If the United States chose to more vigorously enforce immigration laws over the next year, and this resulted in 1 or 2 million illegal workers deciding to leave, it could significantly improve the employment prospects for less-educated natives. An economic downturn would seem to be the ideal time to step up enforcement because such efforts would be buttressed by the economic situation, and a recession is the time when Americans, especially the poorest and least educated, are most in need of jobs.

Legal Immigration. At present, the United States has not adjusted its immigration policy in any way in response to the recession. One analysis found that in 2008, an average of 138,000 new foreign workers were authorized each month. This includes new permanent residents (green cards) and long-term temporary visas for guest workers and others who are authorized to take a job. Although workers in the high-tech sector (using H-1B visas) get a good deal of attention, a very large share of temporary workers and green card holders have relatively little education.

The "New Immigrant Survey," for example, showed that one-third of adult immigrants (new green card holders) had not completed high school. Given the deterioration of the economy in the main immigrant-sending countries, the desire of foreign workers to come to the United States is likely to be strong, despite the US recession. Assuming no change in immigration policy, it is likely that the number of work authorizations in 2009 will be similar to 2008. This raises the serious question of whether such a high level of immigration makes sense, given the current concern about joblessness.


This report is based on the December 2008 Current Population Survey (CPS). This is the latest public-use data available to researchers outside the government. The survey is collected by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is the primary source of the nation's unemployment rate, and other labor force-related statistics. It includes about 131,000 individuals, roughly 67,000 of whom are in the labor force, and excludes those in institutions such as prisons. Like all government surveys, the data is weighted to reflect the actual size and demographic makeup of the US population. The government publishes employment statistics that are both seasonally adjusted and unadjusted from the survey.

The figures in this analysis are all seasonally unadjusted; unadjusted figures are computationally simpler and easy for other researchers to replicate. In general, seasonal adjustment makes only a small difference. For example, in December 2008, the national unemployment rate was 6.8 percent when seasonally adjusted, and 7.1 percent seasonally unadjusted. For sub-populations the difference between seasonally adjusted and unadjusted can be larger.


The Center for Immigration Studies is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit research organization founded in 1985. It is the nation's only think tank devoted exclusively to research and policy analysis of the economic, social, demographic, fiscal, and other impacts of immigration on the United States. It is the Center's mission to expand the base of public knowledge and understanding of the need for an immigration policy that gives first concern to the broad national interest. The Center is animated by a pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision which seeks fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome for those admitted.

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