Jobs Americans Won’t Do? A Detailed Look at Immigrant Employment by Occupation

By Steven A. Camarota and Karen Zeigler on August 17, 2009

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

This analysis tests the often-made argument that immigrants only do jobs Americans don’t want. If the argument is correct, there should be occupations comprised entirely or almost entirely of immigrants. But Census Bureau data collected from 2005 to 2007, which allow for very detailed analysis, show that even before the recession there were only a tiny number of majority-immigrant occupations. (Click here to see detailed table.)

Among the findings:

  • Of the 465 civilian occupations, only four are majority immigrant. These four occupations account for less than 1 percent of the total U.S. workforce. Moreover, native-born Americans comprise 47 percent of workers in these occupations.
  • Many jobs often thought to be overwhelmingly immigrant are in fact majority native-born:
    • Maids and housekeepers: 55 percent native-born
    • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs: 58 percent native-born
    • Butchers and meat processors: 63 percent native-born
    • Grounds maintenance workers: 65 percent native-born
    • Construction laborers: 65 percent native-born
    • Porters, bellhops, and concierges: 71 percent native-born
    • Janitors: 75 percent native-born
  • There are 93 occupations in which 20 percent or more of workers are immigrants. These high-immigrant occupations are primarily, but not exclusively, lower-wage jobs that require relatively little formal education.
  • There are 23.6 million natives in these high-immigrant occupations (20 percent or more immigrant). These occupations include 19 percent of all native workers.
  • Most natives do not face significant job competition from immigrants; however, those who do tend to be less-educated and poorer than those who face relatively little competition from immigrants.
  • In high-immigrant occupations, 57 percent of natives have no more than a high school education. In occupations that are less than 20 percent immigrant, 35 percent of natives have no more than a high school education. And in occupations that are less than 10 percent immigrant, only 26 percent of natives have no more than a high school education.
  • In high-immigrant occupations the average wages and salary for natives is one-fourth lower than in occupations that are less than 20 percent immigrant.
  • Some may believe that natives in high-immigrant occupations are older and that few young natives are willing to do that kind of work. But 33 percent of natives in these occupations are age 30 or younger. In occupations that are less than 20 percent immigrant, 28 percent of natives are 30 or younger.
  • It is worth remembering that not all high-immigrant occupations are lower-skilled and lower-wage. For example, 44 percent of medical scientists are immigrants, as are 34 percent of software engineers, 27 percent of physicians, and 25 percent of chemists.
  • It is also worth noting that a number of politically important groups tend to face very little job competition from immigrants. For example, just 10 percent of reporters are immigrants, as are only 6 percent of lawyers and judges and 3 percent of farmers and ranchers.


The data for this analysis are from the public-use file of the combined three-year sample of the American Community Survey (ACS) for 2005 through 2007. This is the first public-use three-year file to be released by the Census Bureau. The public-use file of the ACS is enormous, allowing for detailed analysis by occupation. The sample includes 4.4 million individuals in the civilian non-institutionalized labor force, about 560,000 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.1 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 who 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.2


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. The data presented here make clear that the often-made argument that immigrants only take jobs Americans don’t want is simply wrong. 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 jobs that are done almost exclusively by immigrants and jobs that are exclusively native. This is clearly not the case.

This analysis focuses on the nation as a whole; the immigrant shares of occupations will vary significantly at the state and local level. But Americans move around the country a great deal. The 2007 ACS showed that about 38 percent of adult natives live outside the state in which they were born. We live in a national economy in which workers can and do move to higher-wage (relative to cost of living) and lower-unemployment areas over time. If immigration levels were lower and a shortage of workers did develop in one part of the country, higher wages and lower unemployment would, over time, tend to induce Americans to move to these areas. Thus in the long term it makes sense to think of the economy as national in scope.3

End Notes

1 Those who are institutionalized live under formally authorized supervision or care such as those in correctional institutions and nursing homes. Since our focus is occupations we also exclude from our analysis the relatively small number of people who did not provide an occupation.

2 The Department of Homeland Security estimates a 10 percent undercount of illegal aliens in Census Bureau data. See Table 2 in Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2007 at DHS estimates of the illegal population are based on the ACS with the assumption that 10 percent of illegal immigrants are missed by the survey.

3 In its 1997 study of immigration’s impact on the labor market, the National Research Council concluded that the effects of immigration are likely to be national in scope and not simply confined to high-immigrant areas of the country. See James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, eds., The New Americans: Economic, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration

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