US Census: One out of six American workers is born abroad

23.9 million foreign-born workers in the United States, more than ever before.

11 December 2009. A recent report of the United States Census Bureau disclosed that nearly one out of six American workers is born abroad.

The American Community Survey data show that in 2007 the number of foreign-born workers in the United States was greater than ever before – 23.9 million – and that the labour force participation among the foreign born was higher than among native born.

The ratio of foreign- versus native- born workers is steadily increasing, with immigrants accounting for 15.7 percent of American labour force (9 percent not citizens and 6.8 percent naturalized), the highest proportion since the 20.5 percent immigration peak in 1910.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, the percentage of foreign-born workers was steady at around 20 percent of the labour force. From the 1920s onwards more restrictive immigration policies caused figures to plummet, reaching the all-time low in 1970, when only about 5.2 percent of U.S. workers were foreign born.

Changes in immigration policies in the 1960s and later decades have lead to a new wave of immigration, leading to the current figures.

The state with the highest presence of immigrant workers is California (35 percent), with New York state following a good 8 points behind (27 percent), closely tagged by New Jersey (26 percent) and Nevada (25 percent).

Even if their relative numbers are lower then they have been historically, the foreign born still contribute an important portion of labour to the U.S. economy and the 2007 figures show that economic opportunity is still a primary attraction for many immigrants to the U.S., the Census Bureau asserts.

Foreign-born workers, when considered as a single group, were more likely to be male than native-born workers, more often less educated, and included higher proportions of workers in their late twenties and early thirties. Nearly 1 in 5 labour force participants 25 to 44 years old were foreign born.

The foreign-born labour force contributes both highly skilled and low-skilled workers to the U.S. economy, with every industry group in the economy employing such workers.

Some industries employ a higher proportion than others, often those with lower median earnings. Many industries with the highest median earnings employ lower proportions of foreign-born workers.

The professional, scientific and technical services industries are a notable exception, with 14 percent foreign born in 2007. This reflects the large segment of the foreign born who have advanced degrees.

Immigrants from Asia, Europe and Africa are most likely to be employed in management and professional occupations, those from Mexico in construction and farming.

The share of immigrant workers with graduate education is striking.

While the foreign born made up about 16 percent of the total civilian labour force in 2007, 28 percent of the labour force with doctoral degrees were foreign born. More than half of these (55 percent) were Asian-born immigrants, who represent one quarter of the labour force, as do Europeans, who make up about another quarter of doctorates (24 percent).

17 percent of people with professional degrees in the U.S. labour force were foreign born, as well as 16 percent of those with a master’s degree and 14 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree.

Among low-skilled workers, the foreign born made up 36 percent of the labour force with less than a high school diploma.

Comparison by generation by the 2008 Current Population Survey shows substantial progress from one generation to the next, with median income of overall immigrant families rising from $50,867 in the first generation to $63,359 and $65,144 in the second and third, respectively. Within this total figure, only families headed by single mothers registered a decrease from the second generation to the third.

Correspondingly, the overall proportion of immigrant families living below the government’s official poverty level has declined from 16.5 percent to 14.5 to 11.5. Once again, adult individuals without a family have grown poorer between the second and third generation.

In terms of education, similar progress was found at primary level, with the proportion of immigrant youth graduating from secondary schools growing from one generation to the next, although the proportion of immigrants without a diploma is higher than among native-born Americans.

Higher education among immigrants is instead declining, with the second generation earning a greater share of bachelor’s or master’s degrees than the third and the first generation peaking in terms of doctorates attained.

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