Are There Really Jobs Americans Won’t Do?

A detailed look at immigrant and native employment across occupations


A detailed look at immigrant and native employment across occupations

Download a pdf of this Backgrounder, including the table

Download the occupations table as an Excel spreadsheet


Steven A. Camarota is the Director of Research and Karen Zeigler is a demographer at the Center for Immigration Studies.


This analysis tests the often-made argument that immigrants do only jobs Americans don't want. If the argument is correct, there should be occupations comprised entirely or almost entirely of immigrants (legal and illegal). But Census Bureau data collected from 2009 to 2011, which allows for detailed analysis of all 472 separate occupations, shows that there were only a handful of majority-immigrant occupations. Thus, there really are no jobs that Americans won't do. Further, we estimated the share of occupations that are comprised of illegal immigrants, and found that there are no occupations in which the majority of workers are illegally in the country.

Among the findings:

  • Of the 472 civilian occupations, only six are majority immigrant (legal and illegal). These six occupations account for 1 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Moreover, native-born Americans still comprise 46 percent of workers even in these occupations.

  • Many jobs often thought to be overwhelmingly immigrant (legal and illegal) are in fact majority native-born:

    • Maids and housekeepers: 51 percent native-born
    • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs: 58 percent native-born
    • Butchers and meat processors: 63 percent native-born
    • Grounds maintenance workers: 64 percent native-born
    • Construction laborers: 66 percent native-born
    • Porters, bellhops, and concierges: 72 percent native-born
    • Janitors: 73 percent native-born

  • There are 67 occupations in which 25 percent or more of workers are immigrants (legal and illegal). In these high-immigrant occupations, there are still 16.5 million natives — accounting for one out of eight natives in the labor force.

  • High-immigrant occupations (25 percent or more immigrant) are primarily, but not exclusively, lower-wage jobs that require relatively little formal education.

  • In high-immigrant occupations, 59 percent of the natives have no education beyond high school, compared to 31 percent of the rest of the labor force.

  • Natives tend to have high unemployment in high-immigrant occupations, averaging 14 percent during the 2009-2011 period, compared to 8 percent in the rest of the labor market. There were a total of 2.6 million unemployed native-born Americans in high-immigrant occupations.

  • Some may think that native-born workers in high-immigrant occupations are mostly older, with few young natives willing to do such work. But 34 percent of natives in these occupations are age 30 or younger, compared to 27 percent of natives in the rest of labor force.

  • It is worth remembering that not all high-immigrant occupations are lower skilled. For example, 36 percent of software engineers are immigrants as are 27 percent of physicians.

  • A number of politically important groups tend to face very little job competition from immigrants (legal and illegal). For example, just 10 percent of reporters are immigrants, as are only 6 percent of lawyers and judges and 6 percent of farmers and ranchers.

Estimates of Illegal Immigrants

  • We find that there are no occupations in the United States in which a majority of workers are illegal immigrants.

  • Illegal immigrants work mostly in construction, cleaning, maintenance, food service, garment manufacturing, and agricultural occupations. However, the overwhelming majority of workers even in these areas are native-born or legal immigrants.

  • Although illegal immigrants comprise a large share of workers in agriculture, farm workers are only a tiny share of the total labor force. Consistent with other research, just 5 percent of all illegal immigrants work in agriculture.

Discussion

Immigration overall. The table available for download as a pdf or Excel spreadsheet at the top of this page uses the American Community Survey (ACS), 2009 to 2011, to show the share of each occupation that is comprised of immigrants (legal and illegal) and natives.1 Immigrants (or the foreign-born, as the Census Bureau refers to them) are individuals residing in the United States who were not American citizens at birth. The data presented here make clear that the often-made argument that immigrants only take jobs Americans don't want is mistaken. Looking at the most detailed level of analysis possible there are very few occupations that are majority immigrant — just six out of 472.2 Moreover, these occupations are quite small, accounting for a tiny share of workers.

The American economy is dynamic, and it would be a mistake to think that every job taken by an immigrant is a job lost by a native. Many factors impact employment and wages. But it would also be a mistake to assume that dramatically increasing the number of workers in these occupations as a result of immigration policy has no impact on the employment prospects or wages of natives. To talk about the labor market as if there were jobs done entirely or almost entirely by immigrants is not helpful to understanding the potential impact of immigration on American workers. It gives the false impression that the job market is segmented between immigrant and native jobs. This is clearly not the case.

It is important to understand that the possible impact of immigration on the labor market opportunities of natives is not confined to those who are in the labor force. The ACS shows nearly 40 million native-born Americans ages 18 to 65 not in the labor force. It is very possible that one of the ways immigration impacts natives is by reducing the share who are employed or in the labor force at any one time.

This analysis focuses on the nation as a whole. Of course, the immigrant share of occupations will vary significantly at the state and local level. However, we live in a national economy in which workers can and do move to higher-wage and lower-unemployment areas over time. Of native-born native adults, 14 percent changed addresses in just the last year. Moreover, 38 percent live outside of their state of birth.3 In its magisterial 1997 study of immigration, the National Research Council concluded that the effects of immigration are likely to be national in scope. Capital, labor, goods, and services can all move. This means that the impact of immigration is not confined to only those areas of the country where immigrants settle.4

Illegal immigrants. In addition to reporting the share of each occupation that is foreign-born, the table at the end of this report also reports an estimate for the share of each occupation that is comprised of illegal immigrants. We include in our estimate only those illegal immigrants captured by the American Community Survey. Prior research indicates that perhaps 10 percent of illegal immigrants are missed by the ACS.5 Illegal immigrants tend to be concentrated in a relatively modest number of occupations. There are 22 occupations out of 472 in which illegal immigrants comprise 20 percent or more of workers.6

There are 5.6 million natives in these high-illegal-immigrant occupations, 70 percent of whom have no education beyond high school. In contrast, in occupations that are made up of 10 percent or fewer illegal immigrants, 70 percent of natives have education beyond high school. This suggests that the impact of illegal immigration on wages and employment opportunities will be felt most by less-educated natives. More-educated natives will tend to avoid competition with illegal immigrants.

Methodology

The data for this analysis come from the public-use file of the combined three-year sample of the American Community Survey (ACS) for 2009 through 2011. The ACS public-use file is enormous, allowing for detailed analysis by occupation. The file includes almost 4.5 million individuals in the civilian, non-institutionalized labor force, about 630,000 of whom are immigrants. Persons in the labor force are either working or looking for work. Like almost all the labor force statistics reported by the government, we confine our analysis to civilians 16 years of age and older not in institutions. The immigrant population, which can also be referred to as the foreign-born, is defined as persons living in the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth. In the ACS this includes people who responded to the survey that they are naturalized American citizens, legal permanent residents (green card holders), illegal aliens, and people on long-term temporary visas such as students or guest workers. It does not include those born abroad of American parents or those born in outlying territories of the United States, such as Puerto Rico. Prior research indicates that some 90 percent of illegal immigrants respond to the ACS.7

By design our estimate of the illegal immigrant population matches the overall figures from the Department of Homeland Security. We purposefully match published DHS estimates for 2009 to 2011 by gender, country, age, state of residence, and year of arrival.8 However, estimating the illegal immigrant share by detailed occupations is still open to some significant uncertainty. Therefore, we report a range for the illegal share in each occupation in order not to convey a false sense of specificity.


End Notes

1 Figures include those employed in the occupation and those who are unemployed and who indicated that their last job was in that occupation.

2 Between 2009 and 2010, the Census Bureau reclassified occupations. Because the dataset for this analysis spans the years 2009 through 2011, the occupation variable has to reflect this change. We used the "Crosswalk" provided by the Census Bureau to create occupational categories that are consistent for all years. To eliminate duplicate categories, older occupational codes that only changed code number were simply reported under the new codes. Also recoded were newer codes that could easily be placed into original code groupings. This includes 4 percent of the sample. About 1 percent of the sample did not have a straightforward re-code. These were coded into new categories using a main grouping strategy. For example, the older code for Public Relations (value 2820) was grouped with the new Public Relations category (value 2825) and not new Market Research Analyst (value 0735). The Census Bureau occupational Crosswalk can be found here.

3 Figures are from the 2009-2011 public-use file of the American Community Survey.

4 James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration, Washington, DC: National Research Council National Press, 1997.

5 The Department of Homeland Security estimates a 10 percent undercount of illegal aliens in Census Bureau data. See Table 2 in Michael Hoefer, Nancy Rytina, and Bryan Bak, "Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2011", Office of Immigration Statistics Policy Directorate, Department of Homeland Security, March 2012.

6 Although we report ranges for the illegal share of each occupation, we do have point estimates and these figures reflect those point estimates.

7 See end note 4.

8 To distinguish legal from illegal immigrants in the survey this report uses citizenship status, year of arrival in the United States, age, country of birth, educational attainment, sex, receipt of welfare programs, receipt of Social Security, veteran status, and marital status. We use these variables to assign probabilities to each respondent. Those individuals who have a cumulative probability of 1 or higher are assumed to be illegal aliens. The probabilities are assigned so that both the total number of illegal aliens and the characteristics of the illegal population closely match other research in the field, particularly the estimates developed by the Department of Homeland Security. This method is based on some very well established facts about the characteristics of the illegal population. For example, it is well known that illegal aliens are disproportionately young, male, under age 45, and have few years of schooling, etc. Thus, we assign probabilities to these and other factors in order to select the likely illegal population. In some cases, we assume that there is no probability that an individual is an illegal alien. For example, veterans, those who directly report they receive a welfare program, Cubans, and several other categories are assumed not to be illegal immigrants. We further took into account whether a particular occupation is highly regulated and licensed (e.g. doctors and pharmacists), and/or if it requires background checks and screening (e.g. security and law enforcement.)

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimate for 2009 through 2011 can be found here. The Pew Hispanic Center has estimated 11.2 million illegal immigrant population as of March 2010 based on the CPS. This includes an adjustment for those missed by the survey. Older studies by the INS and Census Bureau are also available. An INS report found seven million illegal aliens in 2000 and an annual increase of about 500,000. A Census Bureau report estimated eight million illegals in 2000. (Appendix A of Report 1 contains the estimates).