How Immigration Affects the Economy and You

The Pros and Cons of Immigration

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In 2015, there were 43.3 million immigrants living in the United States. That's 13.5 percent of the total population. Of those, 69,920 were refugees. The government granted asylum to 26,124 of them.

Immigrants live with 40.6 million American-born children who are U.S. citizens. Those 81 million immigrants and their families make up 25 percent of all U.S. residents. Almost 75 percent are legal immigrants and their children.


Immigrants are less educated than the average American. But that's improving. For example, thirty percent of immigrants, 25 and older, lack a high school diploma compared to 10 percent of native-born adults. But that's better than in 1970, when more than half of immigrants lacked a high school diploma. 

Furthermore, 29 percent of immigrants have a college degree. But that's similar to the 30 percent of native-born counterparts. Forty-eight percent of immigrants who entered since 2010 have that degree. In 1970, only 12 percent of immigrants had a graduate degree. It increased to 16 percent by 2012. 

The Extent of Illegal Immigration

There were 11.1 million immigrants who were in the country illegally in 2014. That's 3.5 percent of the total population. It's down from the peak of 12.2 million in 2007. But their numbers have tripled from 3.5 million in 1990.

Eight million of them are in the workforce.

That's down from 8.2 million in 2007. Almost half or 3.4 million pay Social Security payroll taxes. They and their employers contributed $13 billion as of 2010. They do so even though they are not eligible for Social Security benefits upon retirement.

Half are from Mexico. That's less than in 2009. That's because Mexico's economy is improving.

At the same time, the number from Asia, Africa, and Central America has increased

Between 700,000 to 850,000 new immigrants arrive illegally each year. More than half slipped across the U.S. border. The rest 45 percent crossed the border legally but didn't return home when their visas expired.

In 2013, the Department of Homeland Security deported a record 434,015 immigrants. Of those, 45 percent had a criminal record. The Obama administration deported 2.4 million. It sent home more in its first five years than the Bush administration did in eight years. That's despite deportation relief for 580,946 young immigrants under Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

The Department of Homeland Security reported in 2013 that there were 1.9 million "removable criminal aliens." That included all types of immigrants. President Donald Trump promised to deport them immediately.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump also promised to build a wall on the border with Mexico. Trump's immigration policies outline his government’s stance on immigrants.

History of U.S. Immigration

In 1924, Congress established national-origin quotas with the Immigration Act of 1924. It awarded immigration visas to just 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census.

It excluded all immigrants from Asia. People were anxious because of World War I and heartily supported limits on immigration. By 1970, immigration had fallen to a low of 4.7 percent of the population. That was down from a high of 14.7 percent in 1910. 

In 1965, Congress changed immigration policy with the Immigration and Nationality Act. It eliminated quotas based on nationality. Instead, it favored those with needed skills or who were joining families in the United States. That increased immigration from Asia and Latin America.

In 2014, America welcomed 1.3 million new immigrants. That's up from 1.2 million in 2013. India sent 147,500. China, which sent 131,800 people, and Mexico, at 130,000, were almost tied. So were Canada at 41,200 immigrants and the Philippines at 40,500 individuals. 

Today's percentage of immigrants is similar to the late 19th century, when almost 15 percent of U.S. residents were immigrants. Most were from Italy, Germany, or Canada. They were tailors, stonemasons, and shopkeepers with skills needed by the United States. While only 17 percent of native-born Americans were skilled laborers, 27 percent of the immigrants were. 

Those who remained in America for 14 years were just as likely to own businesses as the native-born. Their children were just as likely to be accountants, engineers, or lawyers.

How Immigration Affects You

Immigrants highly affect certain workers in a few industries. Their impact is not widespread in the job market. But immigration does benefit most consumers.

Newly arrived immigrants have one thing in common that reduced their ability to compete with native-born workers. They generally don't speak English as well. That means they are less likely to take jobs that require strong communication skills.

For workers without a college degree, that means immigrants are more likely to take jobs in agriculture and construction.

In 2014, immigrants held 43 percent of agricultural jobs. Twenty percent were legal, according to the Pew Research Center. In building and grounds maintenance, 35 percent of the jobs were taken by immigrants. Nineteen percent were legal. In Construction, 27 percent of the jobs went to immigrants, and 12 percent were legal.

They can lower wages and drive out native-born workers in those areas. That pushes native-born workers into jobs like sales and personal services that require superior communication skills.

Immigrants with advanced degrees gravitate toward scientific and technical jobs that don't require high communication. That negatively affects native-born workers in those fields. But natives in management and media don't face a lot of competition from newly arrived immigrants. 

But what hurts some workers helps consumers. Immigrants lower the price of goods and services for everyone. That’s because they provide low-cost labor that allows companies to reduce prices of consumer goods.

Contrary to other claims, immigrants are not more likely to commit crimes than the native-born population. They only make up 5 percent of the nation's prison inmates. But they comprise 7 percent of the total population. There are 1.9 million immigrants convicted of a crime. Less than half or 820,000 are in the country illegally. Of those, 300,000 have felony convictions.