Unemployment for Immigrants and the US-Born: Picture Bleak for Less-Educated Black & Hispanic Americans

By CIS February 2009

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WASHINGTON (February 18, 2009) – The Center for Immigration Studies has prepared a detailed employment breakdown for immigrants and native-born Americans based on December 2008 data, the latest publicly available. (The Department of Labor generally does not separate out unemployment statistics for immigrants and the native-born.) Among US-born blacks and Hispanics without a high school degree, unemployment is 24.7 percent and 16.2 percent respectively — two to three times the national rate.

  • Those native-born Americans most in competition with immigrants, particularly illegal immigrants, are teenagers (16-17), all adults (18+) without a high school diploma, and young workers (18 to 29) with only a high school diploma.
  • Unemployment rates for less-educated native-born Americans (all races).
    • Less than high school: 17 percent.
    • Young with high school diploma only: 15 percent.
    • Teenagers: 21.9 percent.

  • Unemployment for less-educated native-born blacks.
    • Less than high school: 24.7 percent.
    • Young with high school diploma only: 20.2 percent.
    • Teenagers: 31.6 percent.

  • Unemployment for less-educated native-born Hispanics.
    • Less than high school 16.2 percent.
    • Young with high school diploma only: 13.6 percent.
    • Teenagers: 40.3 percent.

  • An estimated 6 to 7 million illegal immigrants are currently holding jobs. Prior research indicates they are overwhelmingly employed in lower-skilled and lower-paying jobs.
  • It is difficult to find any evidence of a shortage of less-educated workers. There are currently 12.8 million native-born high school dropouts and young high school graduates either unemployed or not in the labor force. (Persons not in the labor force are neither working nor looking for work and are ages 18 to 65.)
  • If we count all adults with a high school diploma or less, there are a total of 24.3 million less-educated native-born Americans unemployed or not in the labor force, along with 6.9 million native-born Americans 16 and 17.
  • Less-educated immigrants (legal and illegal) are faring better, though their unemployment rates are also very high. Among immigrants without a high diploma, unemployment is 10.6 percent, for young immigrants with only a high school education it is 11 percent, and for immigrant teenagers, 10.8 percent.

Policy Discussion

The above figure paints a very grim picture for young and less-educated native-born Americans. In some ways the situation is actually worse than these numbers suggest: First, these bleak numbers are from December 2008, and employment is expected to rise for most of 2009. What’s more, young and less-educated workers have had a very difficult time in the labor market even before the current recession. In October 2007, before the start of the current downturn, unemployment among US-born high school dropouts was 11.7 and for those with only a high school degree ages 18-29 it was 10.5 percent. Moreover, in general, the share of such workers holding a job has been declining for about three decades. Both in the short term and the long term things have been very difficult to less-educated Americans.

The difficulty that young workers are experiencing is particularly worrisome because it is as a young person that people learn the skills necessary to function in the workplace, such as showing up on time, following supervisors’ instructions, and interacting with customers. There is evidence that people who are poorly attached to the labor force in their youth tend to stay that way throughout their lives.

Illegal Immigration. The latest data shows 22.1 million immigrants holding jobs in the United States. (And immigrant is anyone, legal or illegal, now living in the United States who was not a US citizen at birth.) Of the 22.1 immigrants holding a job, prior research indicates that about 7 million in the survey are in the country illegally, though this may have declined since hitting a peak in 2007. Some number of illegal workers, perhaps one million, are thought to be missed by the survey. The overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants have a high school degree or less. As a result, illegals are primarily employed in construction, building cleaning and maintenance, food preparation, service and processing, transportation and moving occupations, and agriculture. With the exception of agriculture (which accounts for only a small share of illegal workers – less than one in five), the majority of workers in these occupational categories are still native-born Americans. Most have a high school degree or less.a If the United States chose to more vigorously enforce immigration laws over the next year, and this resulted in 1 or 2 million illegal workers deciding to leave, it could significantly improve the employment prospects for less-educated natives. An economic downturn would seem to be the ideal time to step up enforcement because such efforts would be buttressed by the economic situation, and a recession is the time when Americans, especially the poorest and least educated, are most in need of jobs.

Legal Immigration. At present, the United States has not adjusted its immigration policy in any way in response to the recession. One analysis found that in 2008, an average of 138,000 new foreign workers were authorized each month. This includes new permanent residents (green cards) and long-term temporary visas for guest workers and others who are authorized to take a job. Although workers in the high-tech sector (using H-1B visas) get a good deal of attention, a very large share of temporary workers and green card holders have relatively little education. The “New Immigrant Survey,” for example, showed that one-third of adult immigrants (new green card holders) had not completed high school. Given the deterioration of the economy in the main immigrant-sending countries, the desire of foreign workers to come to the United States is likely to be strong, despite the US recession. Assuming no change in immigration policy, it is likely that the number of work authorizations in 2009 will be similar to 2008. This raises the serious question of whether such a high level of immigration makes sense, given the current concern about joblessness.

Methodology

This report is based on the December 2008 Current Population Survey (CPS). This is the latest public-use data available to researchers outside the government. The survey is collected by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is the primary source of the nation’s unemployment rate, and other labor force-related statistics. It includes about 131,000 individuals, roughly 67,000 of whom are in the labor force, and excludes those in institutions such as prisons. Like all government surveys, the data is weighted to reflect the actual size and demographic makeup of the US population. The government publishes employment statistics that are both seasonally adjusted and unadjusted from the survey. The figures in this analysis are all seasonally unadjusted; unadjusted figures are computationally simpler and easy for other researchers to replicate. In general, seasonal adjustment makes only a small difference. For example, in December 2008, the national unemployment rate was 6.8 percent when seasonally adjusted, and 7.1 percent seasonally unadjusted. For sub-populations the difference between seasonally adjusted and unadjusted can be larger.

Employment of Immigrants and Native-born Americans
December 2008**
(in thousands)
Education Employed Unemployed Unemployed
%
Involuntary
Part-time1
Education Not in
Labor Force2
Employed Total3 Employment
Rate4
ALL persons (16+)5 143,350 10,999 7.1% 3,186 ALL (18-65)5 44,295 136,493 191,050 71.4%
Teens (16-17) 1,743 477 21.5% 6 Teens (16-17) 6,950 1,743 9,171 19.0%
<HS (18+) 12,413 2,064 14.3% 781 <HS (18-65) 9,261 11,776 23,070 51.0%
HS only (18+) 41,190 4,043 8.9% 1,206 HS only (18-65) 14,505 39,602 58,048 68.2%
HS only (18-29) 9,641 1,631 14.5% 291 HS only (18-29) 3,842 9,641 15,114 63.8%
Some Coll (18+) 42,113 2,693 6.0% 748 Some Coll (18-65) 12,712 40,861 56,217 72.7%
Coll or more (18+) 45,889 1,722 3.6% 445 Coll or more (18-65) 7,817 44,253 53,715 82.4%
All Natives (16+) 121,211 9,181 7.0% 2,328 All Natives (18-65) 36,953 114,968 160,401 71.7%
Teens (16-17) 1,677 469 21.9% 6 Teens (16-17) 6,447 1,677 8,593 19.5%
<HS (18+) 6,810 1,397 17.0% 331 <HS (18-65) 6,681 6,299 14,354 43.9%
HS only (18+) 35,558 3,528 9.0% 975 HS only (18-65) 12,643 34,112 50,190 68.0%
HS only (18-29) 8,416 1,480 15.0% 255 HS only (18-29) 3,264 8,416 13,160 64.0%
Some Coll (18+) 38,041 2,387 5.9% 648 Some Coll (18-65) 11,441 36,861 50,644 72.8%
Coll or more (18+) 39,126 1,400 3.5% 369 Coll or more (18-65) 6,188 37,696 45,214 83.4%
Black Natives (16+)6 13,117 1,824 12.2% 316 Black Natives (18-65)6 5,806 12,664 20,205 62.7%
Teens (16-17) 130 60 31.6% 3 Teens (16-17) 1,159 130 1,349 9.6%
<HS (18+) 1,070 351 24.7% 41 <HS (18-65) 1,505 1,002 2,853 35.1%
HS only (18+) 4,710 717 13.2% 166 HS only (18-65) 2,300 4,602 7,608 60.5%
HS only (18-29) 1,218 308 20.2% 62 HS only (18-29) 651 1,218 2,177 55.9%
Some Coll (18+) 4,377 529 10.8% 80 Some Coll (18-65) 1,521 4,303 6,351 67.8%
Coll or more (18+) 2,830 167 5.6% 25 Coll or more (18-65) 480 2,757 3,394 81.2%
Hispanic native (16+)7 9,528 1,015 9.6% 247 Hispanic native (18-65)7 3,383 9,220 13,517 68.2%
Teens (16-17) 151 102 40.3% - Teens (16-17) 1,118 151 1,371 11.0%
<HS (18+) 1,318 255 16.2% 69 <HS (18-65) 1,087 1,271 2,612 48.7%
HS only (18+) 3,295 394 10.7% 93 HS only (18-65) 1,110 3,237 4,741 68.3%
HS only (18-29) 1,298 204 13.6% 38 HS only (18-29) 456 1,298 1,958 66.3%
Some Coll (18+) 3,072 202 6.2% 70 Some Coll (18-65) 982 3,028 4,212 71.9%
Coll or more (18+) 1,692 62 3.5% 16 Coll or more (18-65) 206 1,685 1,952 86.3%
All Foreign Born (16+) 22,138 1,818 7.6% 858 All Foreign Born (18-65) 7,342 21,524 30,649 70.2%
Teens (16-17) 66 8 10.8% - Teens (16-17) 504 66 578 11.4%
<HS (18+) 5,604 667 10.6% 450 <HS (18-65) 2,579 5,477 8,716 62.8%
HS only (18+) 5,632 516 8.4% 231 HS only (18-65) 1,862 5,491 7,858 69.9%
HS only (18-29) 1,225 151 11.0% 37 HS only (18-29) 579 1,225 1,954 62.7%
Some Coll (18+) 4,073 306 7.0% 100 Some Coll (18-65) 1,272 4,000 5,573 71.8%
Coll or more (18+) 6,764 322 4.5% 77 Coll or more (18-65) 1,629 6,557 8,502 77.1%

End Notes

a The Department of Homeland Security estimates a 10 percent undercount in Census Bureau data. See Table 2 in Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2007. For the number of illegal workers in the Current Population Survey, see Table 21 in “Immigrants in the United States 2007: A Profile of America's Foreign-born Population." The report also estimates the education level of illegal immigrants (p. 31), with 81 percent having a high school education or less. For a distribution of illegal immigrants across occupations, see Table 10 in “Dropping Out: Immigrant Entry and Native Exit from the Labor Market.” The Pew Hispanic Center has also estimated the educational level and occupational distribution of illegals, with similar results; see The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S. and Unauthorized Migrants: Numbers and Characteristics.

** Figures are for the non-institutionalized population, so persons in prisons, nursing homes, etc. are not included. "Immigrant" and "foreign-born" are used synonymously and describe persons who were not US citizens at birth, including naturalized citizens, legal immigrants, and illegal aliens. Figures are seasonally unadjusted.

1 Persons who indicated that they are working part-time for economic reasons.

2 Persons not in the labor force are neither working nor looking for work.

3 Total number in the specific age group.

4 The share of people in the specific age group who are currently holding a job.

5 Figures are for all races and ethnicities for both immigrants and the native-born.

6 Persons who chose only one race, and are not Hispanic.

7 Hispanics can be of any race.