The Employment Situation of Immigrants and Natives in the First Quarter of 2016

By Steven A. Camarota July 2016

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Steven A. Camarota is the director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies.


The number and percentage of native-born Americans officially unemployed have improved. But the official unemployment rate only includes those who have looked for a job in the last four weeks. The number and share of working-age (16 to 65) natives not in the labor force (not working or looking for work) has barely improved in the last year. Moreover, the number of working-age (16 to 65) natives holding a job in the first quarter of 2016 was about the same as it was in the first quarter of 2007. In contrast, the number of working-age immigrants holding a job is 2.5 million higher than in 2016.

  • The unemployment rate for natives in the first quarter of 2016 was 5.5 percent (6.9 million). Despite recent improvements, this is still higher than the 5.0 percent rate in the first quarter of 2007 and the 4.5 percent rate in the first quarter of 2000.1

  • In addition to the unemployed, 28 percent (48.5 million) of working-age (16 to 65) natives were not in the labor force — not working or looking for work. This is much higher than the 25.3 percent rate (42.1 million) in the same quarter of 2007 and the 22.9 percent rate (35.7 million) in 2000.

  • Combining those not in the labor force who are of working age and all those unemployed shows 55.4 million working-age, native-born Americans without jobs in the first quarter of 2016, compared to 41.1 million in the same quarter of 2000.2

  • There were also 11.0 million working-age immigrants unemployed or not in the labor force in the first quarter of 2016.3

  • In addition to those unemployed and not in the labor force, there were 6.2 million natives and immigrants working part-time, but looking for full-time work.4

  • In total, there were 72.6 million natives and immigrants unemployed, not in the labor force (16 to 65), or forced to work part-time in the first quarter of 2016.5

The Situation for Adults without a Bachelor's Degree

  • Only 65 percent of natives (18-65) without a bachelor's degree were holding a job in the first quarter of 2016. This is well below the 69.4 percent in the first quarter of 2007 and 72.2 percent in the first quarter of 2000.

  • In the first quarter of 2016, 73.4 million natives (18-65) without a bachelor's degree were employed. This is 5.7 million fewer than in 2007 and over seven million less than in 2000.

  • Combining those not in the labor force and those unemployed shows 39.7 million native-born Americans without a bachelor's degree not working in the first quarter of 2016, compared to 31 million in the same quarter of 2000.6

  • There were also 7.9 million immigrants without a bachelor's degree unemployed or not in the labor force in the first quarter of 2016.7

  • In addition to those unemployed and not in the labor force, there were over five million immigrants and natives without a bachelor's degree working part-time, but looking for full-time work.8

  • In total, there were 52.7 million natives and immigrants without bachelor's degrees unemployed, not in the labor force (18 to 65), or forced to work part-time in the first quarter of 2016.9

The key policy question facing the country with regard to immigration is: Does it make sense to continue to admit a million new permanent immigrants each year, along with several hundred thousand guest workers, given the enormous pool of working-age people not working?

Data and Methods

The two primary employment surveys collected by the U.S. government are referred to as the "household survey" (also called the Current Population Survey, or CPS) and the "establishment survey" (also called the Current Employment Statistics Survey, or CES). The establishment survey asks employers about the number of workers they have. In contrast, the CPS asks people at their place of residence if they are working. Both surveys are collected by the Census Bureau for the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). While the two surveys show the same general trends, the figures from the two surveys differ to some extent.

Because it asks workers about their employment situation, only the CPS provides information about who is working, who is looking for work, and who is not working or looking for work. Moreover, only the CPS asks respondents about their socio-demographic characteristics such as education, age, and country of birth. Thus, only the CPS can be used to compare employment among immigrants and the native-born.10 For these reasons, this analysis uses the public-use files of the CPS to examine employment in the United States by quarter. (For each quarter, the three CPS surveys combined include roughly 350,000 natives and 43,000 immigrants. The survey is then weighted to reflect the actual size of the U.S. population.)

The data for the tables in this report comes from the public-use files of the January, February, and March CPSs for 2000 to 2016. The tables presented here are reported by quarter. Quarterly data is more statistically robust, especially for smaller populations like immigrants and minorities, due to the inclusion of three months of data. Persons in institutions like prisons or nursing homes are not included in the CPS. The CPS is the nation's primary source for unemployment and other labor force statistics. Like all government surveys, the data is weighted to reflect the actual size and demographic makeup of the U.S. population.

The government publishes employment statistics that are both seasonally adjusted and unadjusted from the survey. The figures in this analysis are seasonally unadjusted. Unadjusted figures are computationally simpler and easier for other researchers to replicate. In general, BLS does not provide separate estimates for the foreign-born (immigrants) and the U.S.-born broken down by characteristics like education, race, and age. However, all CPS respondents are asked these questions. The Census Bureau defines the foreign-born as persons who are not U.S. citizens at birth, which includes naturalized citizens, legal immigrants who are not citizens (green card holders), temporary visitors and workers, and illegal immigrants. All figures for the total U.S. population in this report match seasonally unadjusted figures from the BLS.

Defining Labor Force Attachment

The Unemployed. The standard measure of unemployment, referred to as U-3, takes the number of people who report that they are not working and have looked for a job in the last four weeks and divides it by the number actually working plus those looking for work. The top half of Table 1 reports the number employed and the number unemployed for the first quarter of each year, 2000 to 2016. The left sides of Tables 4, 5, and 6 also report the U-3 unemployment rate in detail for different segments of the population in 2000, 2007, and 2016. We focus on 2007 and 2000 because they represent the peak years of the last two economic expansions.

The Labor Force. The labor force includes all those working or who have looked for work in the four weeks prior to the CPS. The top right of Table 1 shows the number and share of those 16 to 65 not in the labor force. When looking at the number and share not in the labor force, it is very common to report statistics only for those under age 65 because the overwhelming majority of those over 65 do not work for reasons not related to economic conditions. The right sides of Tables 4, 5, and 6 report the number working in detail for different segments of the population in the first quarters of 2000, 2007, and 2016. The tables also report the share of people in the labor force, which is the inverse of those not in the labor force, as shown in Table 1. The right sides of Tables 4, 5, and 6 also report the employment rate. The employment rate is simply the share of people in each segment of the population who are working.


End Notes

1 Unemployment figures are for those 16 and older.

2 Unemployment figures are for those 16 and older.

3 Unemployment figures are for those 16 and older.

4 Those working part-time, but desiring full-time work, include a small number of people over age 65.

5 Unemployment figures and those working part-time wanting full-time work include a small number of people over age 65.

6 Unemployment figures are for those 18 and older.

7 Unemployment figures are for those 18 and older.

8 Those working part-time, but desiring full-time work, include a small number of people over age 65.

9 Unemployment figures and those working part-time, but wanting full time work, include a small number of people over age 65.

10 The establishment survey is not released to the public, so no independent analysis of it is possible.