Working and Non-Working Immigrants in the United States

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Immigration has long been a vital part of the American experience and a key to its success. Today, 14 percent of the nation’s residents are foreign-born, including about 7.3 million who live in the United States legally and 2.8 million who do not.

Immigrants come to the United States for a variety of reasons, from seeking opportunity and a better life for themselves and their families to fleeing poor or dangerous conditions in their country of origin. Despite the fact that most immigrants say they have been better off here than in their countries of origin, many still face significant challenges in their new home. In addition to financial concerns, many immigrants say they are subjected to discrimination on the job or in their communities. They also face a lack of access to public benefits such as health care and social services.

For most immigrants, working is the primary way they earn a living. Most cite a desire to provide for themselves and their family as the main motivation for moving to the United States. This desire is what drives them to work in many difficult and sometimes physically demanding jobs, including some that they feel they are overqualified for. They are disproportionately employed in industries like construction, sales, and health care.

Nearly half of working immigrants have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Three in four are self-employed, and most have jobs in construction, manufacturing or healthcare. In contrast, about two-thirds of the nonworking immigrant population consists of students and people who are retired or homemakers.

The vast majority of immigrants, both legal and unauthorized, live in metropolitan areas. New York, Los Angeles and Miami are home to the largest numbers of immigrants in the nation. Approximately 20 states have larger proportions of foreign-born residents than the national average.

While the largest metro areas are the most common settlement locations for immigrants, their numbers do not tell the whole story. Many states, such as Hawaii and Texas, have higher shares of immigrants than the national average. They are often located in historic immigrant gateways and have large communities of immigrants that span across generations.

Almost three in four immigrants say they would choose to move to the United States again if given the chance. This figure is consistent across ages, education levels, incomes and races/ethnicities.

The vast majority of immigrants, both legal and undocumented, report speaking English well or very well. Most, however, have limited family connections in the United States and are reliant on wage-based employment to support their families. As a result, first- and 1.5-generation immigrants may have to focus on finding stable, secure, and dignified work and have little time or space to consider pursuing their passions in the arts or other professional fields unless they are able to do so with a green card or some other form of legal status. Some may decide to do so later in their careers when they have established themselves and their children are older.