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Immigrants in the United States: Profile of America's Foreign-Born Population

Written by Steven A. Camarota

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Executive Summary
Using the latest Census Bureau data from 2010 and 2011, this paper provides a detailed picture of the more than 50 million immigrants (legal and illegal) and their U.S.-born children (under 18) in the United States by country of birth, state, and legal status. One of the most important findings is that immigration has dramatically increased the size of the nation’s low-income population; however, there is great variation among immigrants by sending country and region. Moreover, many immigrants make significant progress the longer they live in the country. But even with this progress, immigrants who have been in the United States for 20 years are much more likely to live in poverty, lack health insurance, and access the welfare system than are native-born Americans. The large share of immigrants arriving as adults with relatively little education partly explains this phenomenon.

Overall Numbersbald_eagle_head_and_american_flag1

Labor Force

Poverty

Welfare Use

Health Insurance Coverage

Public Schools

Homeownership

Housing Overcrowding

Entrepreneurship

Educational Attainment

Progress Over Time

Legal Status

  • We estimate that 28 percent of all immigrants are in the country illegally. Roughly half of Mexican and Central American and one-third of South American immigrants are here illegally.
  • Impact on Population Size and Age

  • New immigration (legal and illegal) plus births to immigrants added 22.5 million residents to the country over the last decade, equal to 80 percent of total U.S. population growth.

  • Recent immigration has had only a tiny impact on the nation’s age structure. If the nearly 14 million immigrants who arrived in 2000 or later are excluded, it raises the average age in the United States in 2010 from 37.4 years to 37.6 years — roughly two months.
  • State Data

    Discussion

    There are many reasons to examine the nation’s immigrant population. First, immigrants and their minor children now represent one-sixth of the U.S. population. Moreover, understanding how immigrants are doing is the best way to evaluate the effects of immigration policy. Absent a change in policy, between 12 and 15 million new immigrants (legal and illegal) will likely settle in the United States in the next decade. And perhaps 30 million new immigrants will arrive in the next 20 years. Immigration policy determines the number allowed in, the selection criteria used, and the level of resources devoted to controlling illegal immigration. The future, of course, is not set and when formulating immigration policy, it is critically important to know the impact of recent immigration.

    It is difficult to understate the impact of immigration on the socio-demographics of the United States. New immigration plus births to immigrants added more than 22 million people to the U.S. population in the last decade, equal to 80 percent of total population growth. Immigrants and their young children (under 18) now account for more than one in five public school students, one-fourth of those in poverty, and nearly one-third of those without health insurance, creating very real challenges for the nation’s schools, health care systems, and physical infrastructure. The large share of immigrants who arrive as adults with relatively few years of schooling is the primary reason so many live in poverty, use welfare programs, or lack health insurance, not their legal status or an unwillingness to work.

    Despite the fact that a large share of immigrants have few years of schooling, most immigrants do work. In fact, the share of immigrant men holding a job is higher than native-born men. Moreover, immigrants make significant progress the longer they reside in the United States. This is also true for the least educated. While many immigrants do very well in the United States, on average immigrants who have been in the country for 20 years lag well behind natives in most measure of economic well-being.

    At the same time that immigration policy has significantly increased the number of less-educated immigrants, there has been a dramatic deterioration in the labor market position of less-educated natives. Comparing data from the beginning of this decade shows a huge decline in the share of young and less-educated natives holding a job — from two-thirds to just under half. The decline in work among the young and less-educated natives began well before the Great Recession. It is difficult to find any evidence of a shortage of less-educated workers in the United States. Some may argue that immigrants only do jobs that American do not want, but an analysis by occupations shows that the vast majority of workers in almost every job are U.S.-born.

    A central question for immigration policy is: Should we continue to allow in so many people with little education — increasing potential job competition for the poorest American workers and the population in need of government assistance? The primary goal of this paper is to better inform that debate.

    Data Source

    The data for this paper come primarily from the public-use files of the 2010 American Community Survey (ACS) and the March 2011 Current Population Survey (CPS). In some cases, for state-specific information, we combine the March 2010 and 2011 CPS to get statistically robust results. In this report, the terms foreign-born and immigrant are used synonymously. Immigrants are persons living in the United States who were not American citizens at birth. This includes naturalized American citizens, legal permanent residents (green card holders), illegal immigrants, and people on long-term temporary visas such as foreign students or guest workers.


    Introduction

    There are many reasons to examine the nation’s immigrant population. First, the more than 50 million immigrants and their minor children now comprise one-sixth of U.S. residents, so how they are faring is vitally important to the United States. Moreover, understanding how immigrants are doing is the best way to evaluate the effects of immigration policy. Absent a change in policy, between 12 and 15 million new immigrants (legal and illegal) will likely settle in the United States in the next decade. And perhaps 30 million new immigrants will arrive in the next 20 years. Immigration policy determines the number allowed in, the selection criteria used, and the level of resources devoted to controlling illegal immigration. The future, of course, is not set and when deciding on what immigration policy should be, it is critically important to know what impact the immigration flow has had in recent decades.

    There is no one answer to the question of whether the country has been well served by its immigration policy. To evaluate the effect of this immigration it is necessary to draw on the available data. This paper uses the latest Census Bureau data to provide readers with information so they can make sound judgments about the effects of immigration on American society and on what immigration policy should be in the future.

    Although not explicitly acknowledged, the two most important ways of examining the immigration issue are what might be called the “immigrant-centric” approach and the “national” approach. They are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct. The immigrant-centric approach focuses on how immigrants are faring, what is sometimes called “immigrant adaptation”. The key assumption underlying this perspective is not so much how immigrants are doing relative to natives, but rather how they are doing given their level of education, language skills, and other aspects of their human capital endowment. This approach also tends to emphasize the progress immigrants make over time on their own terms and the benefit of migration to the immigrants themselves. The immigrant-centric view is the way most, but not all, academic researchers approach the issue.

    The other way of thinking about immigration can be called the national perspective, which is focused on the impact immigration has on American society. This approach emphasizes that immigration is supposed to benefit the existing population of American citizens; the benefit immigrants receive by coming here is less important. So, for example, if immigration adds significantly to the population living in poverty or using welfare programs, this is seen as a problem, even if immigrants are clearly better off in this country than they would have been back home and are no worse than natives with the same education. This approach is also focused on possible job competition between immigrants and natives and the effect immigration has on public coffers. In general, the national perspective is the way the American public thinks about the immigration issue.

    When thinking about the information presented in this report, it is helpful to keep both perspectives in mind. There is no one best way to think about immigration. By approaching the issue from both points of view, the reader may arrive at a better understanding of the complex issues surrounding immigration.

    Download a pdf of this Backgrounder

    Table of Contents in Report in Download contains

    Household Income and Home Ownership
    Public Schools
    Overcrowded Households
    Poverty and Near Poverty
    Health Insurance Coverage by State
    Welfare Use
    Estimated State and Federal Income Tax
    Education Levels
    State Work Force

    The Center for Immigration Studies is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit, research organization. Since our founding in 1985, we have pursued a single mission – providing immigration policymakers, the academic community, news media, and concerned citizens with reliable information about the social, economic, environmental, security, and fiscal consequences of legal and illegal immigration into the United States.

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