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April 2009, Volume 15, Number 2

Foreign-Born: People, Workers

People. The American Community Survey ( estimated there were 38.1 million foreign-born US residents in 2007; 12.6 percent of the US population. They included 11.7 million people born in Mexico; 1.9 million born in China; 1.7 million born in the Philippines; 1.5 million born in India; 1.1 million each born in El Salvador and Vietnam; and a million born in Korea. The next leading countries of birth are Cuba, Canada and the Dominican Republic.

The ACS encompasses a population perhaps five million larger than is included in the Current Population Survey, which estimates the civilian noninstitutional population. Estimates based on the CPS, such as those published by Pew (, report 37 million foreign-born. Pew adjusts CPS data for undercounts, which yields an estimate of 12.7 million Mexican-born US residents.

Some 16.2 million foreign-born US residents, 42 percent, were naturalized US citizens in 2007. About 47 percent of the foreign-born men, and 53 percent of the foreign-born women, had naturalized.

Foreign-born US residents have a higher median age (40) than US-born residents (36). About 28 percent of the foreign-born entered the US between 2000 and 2007, 20 percent in the 1990s, and 43 percent before 1990. Some 52 percent of the foreign-born US residents report speaking English less than "very well;" two percent of the US-born speak English less than "very well."

The harder it is to enter the US from a particular country, the higher the level of education of the foreign-born from that country in the US. US residents born in African countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt are most likely to be high-school graduates, while those born in Mexico and Central America are least likely to be high-school graduates. About 88 percent of US-born adults graduated from high school, compared with 68 percent of foreign-born US residents.

Median household income is $51,249 for US-born residents and $46,881 for foreign-born residents. About three-fourths of US residents born in India had at least BA degrees, and Indian-born US residents had median household incomes of $91,200 in 2007. About 36 percent of the US-born labor force has management, professional and related occupations, but 69 percent of Indian-born US workers are in these occupations.

Families with US-born heads had a $62,904 median annual income in 2007, more than the $50,633 of those with foreign-born heads. About 14 percent of all foreign-born families had incomes below federal poverty thresholds, compared to nine percent for native-born families.

A Pew Hispanic Center analysis of ACS data found that 23 percent of full-time, foreign-born US workers, and 12 percent of US-born full-time workers, earned less than $20,000 a year in 2007. About 38 percent of US-born full-time workers, and 28 percent of foreign-born full-time workers, earned $50,000 or more. Median earnings of US-born full-time workers were $40,476, and $30,357 for foreign-born full-time workers.

Migration within the US fell sharply in 2007-08 compared with a year earlier, as fewer people sold expensive homes in central cities to move to the suburbs. According to Census estimates, the US received a net one million immigrants in 2005-06, but only 890,000 in 2007-08.

Immigration. DHS reported that 1.1 million immigrants were admitted in FY08; almost 60 percent were already in the US and adjusted their status from student or unauthorized to immigrant. In FY07, there were also almost 1.1 million immigrants, and almost 60 percent were in the US and adjusted their status.

Over a million immigrants became naturalized US citizens in FY08, including 23 percent from Mexico, almost seven percent from India, six percent from the Philippines, and four percent each from China and Cuba (about 120,000 naturalization petitions were denied in FY08). Reasons for the jump in naturalizations include excitement over November 2008 elections, fears of enforcement, and the fact that almost 10 million immigrants were admitted in the 1990s.

Legal immigrants who are at least 18 and in the US at least five years may naturalize after they pass a test of English language and US history; in FY08, new citizens spent a median nine years as immigrants. The backlog of immigrants waiting to naturalize fell sharply, from 1.1 million at the end of 2007 to 500,000 at the end of 2008.

Of the 11.7 million Mexican-born residents in the US in 2007, the ACS reported that only 2.6 million or 22 percent were naturalized US citizens; 70 percent of Mexican-born US residents entered before 2000, meaning that they were in the US at least seven years. Among the Mexican-born five and older, 97 percent spoke a language other than English at home, and 75 percent spoke English less than very well.

Of Mexican-born US residents 25 and older, five percent were college gradates; 85 percent had not finished high school.

There were 7.2 million Mexican-born workers in the US labor force, including five million men and 2.2 million women. A third of the men were in construction and repair occupations, while 41 percent of the women were in service occupations. According to the ACS, six percent of all Mexican-born US workers were employed in agriculture, compared to two percent of all US workers, and 21 percent were employed in construction, compared to eight percent of all US workers.

Of the 1.5 million Indian-born residents in the US in 2007, the ACS reported that 668,000 or 44 percent were naturalized US citizens; 63 percent of Mexican-born US residents entered before 2000, meaning that they were in the US at least seven years. Among the Indian-born five and older, 90 percent spoke a language other than English at home, and 26 percent spoke English less than very well.

Of Indian-born US residents 25 and older, 41 percent had a graduate or professional degree and a third had a BA degree, that is, 74 percent were college gradates.

There were a million Indian-born workers in the US labor force, two-thirds men. Over 70 percent of the men were in managerial and professional occupations, as were 64 percent of the women. About 32 percent of all US male workers, and 38 percent of all US female workers, were in managerial and professional occupations.

Workers. Some 24 million of the 38 million foreigners, two-thirds, were in the labor force, while 128 million or 64 percent of US-born workers were in the labor force. In December 2008, 22.1 million foreign-born workers were employed, including seven to eight million unauthorized foreigners. The unemployment rate was higher for native-born workers (6.4 percent) than among foreign-born workers (5.4 percent) in 2007.

A higher share of foreign-born (67 percent) than US-born (64 percent) residents 16 and older are in the labor force. Some 17 percent of foreign-born workers were employed in educational services and health care in 2007, 13 percent in arts and entertainment, and 12 percent each in food services, construction, and professional and scientific jobs.

In 1960, foreign-born workers earned about seven percent more than US-born workers. The foreign-born wage premium has turned into a deficit--in 2000, foreign-born workers earned an average 20 percent less than US-born workers. According to economist George Borjas, US employers gain about $430 billion or three percent of GDP under current immigration patterns while US workers lose $400 billion or 2.8 percent, generating a net $30 billion benefit from immigration that is received by employers.

The federal minimum wage rose from $5.15 to $6.55 an hour on July 24, 2008 and to $7.25 on July 24, 2009. At the end of 2008, state minimum wages were higher than the federal minimum in 24 states and the same in 14 states. Five southeastern states, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee, do not have a state minimum wage.

Unauthorized and Recession. The number of unauthorized foreigners in the US has stabilized at about 12 million.

There was continued speculation about the relative importance of the US recession and stepped-up enforcement in stabilizing the number of unauthorized, which had been increasing by 800,000 a year until 2005 and 500,000 a year since 2006 and 2007. DHS Secretary Napolitano in February 2009 said that the loss of construction and tourism-related jobs removed a "prime draw" for unauthorized workers.

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