Immigrant Experiences in the United States

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A person who moves to a new country for the purpose of living and working there is considered an immigrant. The term can also be used to describe people who have done so to escape a dangerous or undesirable situation in their homeland, and people who have been granted special status such as refugees or asylum seekers.

The largest and most nationally representative survey of immigrants, conducted by KFF in partnership with the Los Angeles Times, captures the diverse experiences of those who live in the United States today. While the vast majority of respondents feel their lives are better here than in their countries of origin, many face financial hardships and face discrimination at work or when seeking health care.

Many Americans believe that immigrants take jobs from Americans and drive up welfare benefits, but the most widely cited fiscal estimates show that on average, immigrants contribute about $90 billion to the economy each year — while receiving only $5 billion in public assistance. They do this by increasing productivity, boosting capital formation, and raising demand for goods and services.

However, the perception that immigrants increase welfare costs may be based on the fact that some undocumented migrants do not pay taxes. This is an inaccurate and misleading assumption. Most undocumented people who are not working do not fit the traditional definition of a “worker,” as they do not have a job and do not earn enough money to pay taxes.

For a large share of people who are not employed or earning enough to pay taxes, the reason they left their home country was not to work but rather to escape unsafe conditions. This includes those who crossed the border to enter the U.S. from Central America, as well as those whose applications for asylum or refugee status are under consideration. The most common reason for migration is poverty, followed by political instability and gang violence.

Two-thirds of those who are working say they are overqualified for their jobs, particularly among college-educated black and Hispanic immigrants. One in three say they struggle to afford basic needs such as housing and food, with Hispanics more likely than others to report such challenges. Many also send remittances to their families in their countries of origin.

International migration is at the center of a range of political, economic, and social debates in many countries around the world. But a clear understanding of what it means to be an immigrant can help shape these conversations and guide policies that improve the quality of life for all residents.

To be a legal immigrant, someone must pass a civics test and oath of allegiance, acquire a naturalized citizenship, and be treated the same as citizens under the law. As such, they are considered members of the 1.5 generation – those who have moved to another country as children or teens and have at least one parent who has moved to that country at some point in their lives.