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Immigrant Workers in America

Brookings analyzes the role of immigrants on the labor force
  • March 26 2012

Despite being a “nation of immigrants,” the U.S. seems to be in a perpetual debate about the impact of immigrant workers on the labor market. Today, this comes through discussions about illegal immigration, border security, worker skill levels, job growth and entrepreneurship, all of which, to some extent, rely on perceptions of immigrants’ role on the U.S. economy.

Looking to better frame these debates, The Brookings Institution, a non-partisan, public policy research group in Washington, DC, has analyzed data on immigrants in the labor force using the Census Bureau’s 2010 Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey. It looks at how large a share recent immigrants have of the labor force and how it differs by particular industries. It also examines the educational attainment and occupational profiles of recent immigrants compared to native-born workers.

Brookings contends that “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.”

Some of Brookings’ findings include (see the report for the complete analysis):

Immigrants are a growing part of the labor force. In 2010 there were 23.1 million foreign-born persons in the civilian labor force, making up 16.4 percent of the total. As the foreign-born population has grown as a share of the total population, they have grown disproportionately as a share of the labor force. In 1970, immigrants made up approximately 5 percent of the population and 5 percent of the labor force.

Immigrant share of labor force growth has slowed. In the late 1990s, when immigration levels were quite high, immigrant workers made up 46 percent of the growth of the labor force, while native workers made up 54 percent. During the first half of the 2000s, also a period of high immigration, the immigrant contribution to the growth of the labor force was even higher, at about two-thirds of the total. Since then, immigration has slowed and the share of labor force growth due to immigrants has dipped to 42 percent of the total.

Immigrants are overrepresented in certain industries. Immigrants represent 15.8 percent of the civilian employed population overall, but are over-represented in certain industries. Immigrants are a significant presence in industries that demand higher-skilled workers such as information technology and high-tech manufacturing. In both of these sectors immigrants make up 23 percent of all workers. But they also supply a large number of workers in industries with a more mixed or primarily low-skilled workforce. These industries include construction, food service, and agriculture where they represent approximately one-fifth of all workers. The highest shares of immigrant workers are found in private households (49 percent of all workers) and in the accommodation sector (31 percent).

 

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