Immigrants in the United States

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About 3.4 percent of the world’s population—or 258 million people—are international migrants. The share of immigrants has been relatively stable over the past couple decades, though immigration rates have risen in many countries, most dramatically in Mexico and India. The vast majority of migrants—legal and unauthorized—are men, but the proportion of women in this group has also remained relatively steady over time. The median age of migrants is 29, and about a third are younger than 24. Most live in 20 major metropolitan areas—with New York, Los Angeles and Miami having the largest immigrant populations.

The vast majority of migrants are employed, and most work in construction, sales, health care, production and service industries. About three in ten immigrants say they are overqualified for their current jobs, a possible sign that they had to take a step back in their careers when they moved to the United States or have struggled to find work.

Most immigrants cite economic opportunities as the main reason they decided to leave their home countries, although smaller but still sizeable shares mention other factors such as a desire to improve the lives of their children, safety or security concerns, family reunification, retirement, escape from persecution or climate disasters, or simply a sense that the United States offers greater opportunity than their home country. Among those who are legal immigrants, most cite the opportunity to work in high-skilled fields or start their own businesses.

A growing number of Americans express mixed views about how immigrants should be treated, with a majority believing they strengthen the economy through their hard work and talent. Some people, however, say immigrants are a burden because they depress wages and cost services such as housing, education and health care. In the current political climate, extreme political partisanship and rhetoric can inflame anti-immigrant sentiments rooted in xenophobia, nativism and racism.

Despite their strong economic contributions, immigrants face challenges in the United States. Some are struggling to make ends meet or to pay for the care they need. Others are frightened of being deported, which can put a damper on their daily lives and make them less likely to interact with their neighbors. Still others fear discrimination or unfair treatment on the job, in their communities and even while seeking health care.

Some people argue that the United States could benefit enormously from a reform of its immigration system to be more responsive to broader economic conditions. Currently, Congress sets an annual limit on the number of permanent and temporary workers allowed into the country to meet labor demands, and that cap doesn’t fluctuate depending on the state of the economy. This limits the ability of employers to hire when they need to, putting downward pressure on wages and working conditions for both unauthorized and legal immigrant workers. This is true whether they are doing a job that requires highly skilled workers or unskilled labor. Immigrants also may have a difficult time navigating the complex bureaucracy of the healthcare system and are at heightened risk for untreated illnesses due to lack of insurance or access to health care.