The Employment Situation of Immigrants and Natives in May 2020

Employment improved somewhat more for the native-born, but remains dismal for both groups

By Steven A. Camarota, Jason Richwine, and Karen Zeigler on June 17, 2020

Download a PDF of this Backgrounder.

Steven A. Camarota is the director of research and Karen Zeigler is a demographer at the Center. Jason Richwine, PhD, is a public policy analyst based in Washington, D.C., and a contributing writer at National Review.

An analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies of data released last Friday, June 5, by the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while there was some improvement in the number and share of native-born Americans and immigrants (legal and illegal) out of work, unemployment remains extraordinarily high. Though still dismal for both groups, the situation improved more for the native-born than for immigrants between April and May. The unemployment rate for natives fell 1.6 percentage points to 12.4 percent in May, while it fell only 0.7 percentage points for immigrants to 15.8 percent. As a result, the gap between immigrants and natives widened somewhat between April and May. With roughly 21 million natives and immigrants unemployed, it is extremely difficult to justify the continued entry of new immigrants on the grounds of any "labor shortage".

While workers of every education level have experienced significant job losses during the Covid-19 shutdown, the situation for workers without a college education is especially bleak. The situation is also particularly bad for newly arrived immigrants who are one of the few groups whose already high unemployment actually worsened between April and May. Figures and tables are below. An Excel file of the tables can be downloaded here.

  • The unemployment rate for native-born Americans was 12.4 percent in May; while lower than the 14 percent in April, it is still three times what it was before Covid-19 hit. Among immigrants, the rate was 15.8 percent in May, compared to 16.4 percent in April. The immigrant rate is still four times what it was before Covid-19. (Figure 1, Table 1)
  • The number of natives unemployed declined by about 10 percent between April and May, compared to only a 3 percent decline for immigrants. Still, the number of natives and immigrants unemployed stood at 20.5 million, three times what it was in February.
  • In addition to the unemployed, there were 48 million working-age (16-64) native-born and 9.9 million working-age immigrants entirely out of the labor force — neither working nor looking for work; an increase of four million for the native-born and a 1.2 million increase for immigrants since February. (Table 2)
  • We estimate the unemployment rate for legal immigrants in May was 15.6 percent, unchanged from April. In contrast, the rate for illegal immigrants was 16.4 percent, a 2.9 percentage-point improvement over April. All of the employment gains among immigrants between April to May seem to have gone to illegal immigrants. However, our estimates by legal status are approximations only. (Table 5)
  • Further evidence that it was illegal immigrants who made employment gains between April and May, not legal immigrants, is that the unemployment rate of only less-educated immigrants improved. Illegal immigrants are concentrated among those without a college education. (Table 5)

Among the less-educated:

  • The unemployment rate for the native-born (ages 25-plus) without a bachelor's degree was 13.5 percent in May, compared to 6.5 percent for those with at least a bachelor's. Among immigrants (ages 25-plus), 18.3 percent without a bachelor's degree were unemployed, compared to 10.3 percent with a bachelor's. (Table 1)
  • The unemployment rate (immigrant and native) in many jobs typically performed by the less-educated remains high. (Table 4)
    • 36.4 percent for food preparers and servers
    • 18.9 percent for janitors
    • 9.4 percent for landscapers, trimmers, and groundskeepers
    • 17.8 percent for construction laborers
    • 8.3 percent for health care aides and nursing assistants
    • 11.3 percent for butchers and food processing workers
  • New immigrants (legal and illegal) are one of the few groups whose unemployment rate went up April to May. Among immigrants without a bachelor's degree who have lived in the United States for less than three years, the unemployment rate increased from 22.9 percent to 25.2 percent. It also increased for recent arrivals with a bachelor's degree. (Table 5)
  • The Covid-19 shutdown has exacerbated the long-term decline in the labor force participation rate (share working or looking for work) of the less-educated. In May 2020, only 65 percent of working-age (16-64) natives without a bachelor's degree were in the labor force, down from 71 percent in 2007 and 74 percent in 2000. (Figure 5)

Data and Methods

This report uses the Current Population Survey (CPS) to examine the employment situation in the United States as of May 2020, with particular attention paid to differences between immigrants and natives. Based on a monthly survey of 60,000 households, the CPS is the nation's primary source for the unemployment rate and other labor force statistics. The sample is weighted to reflect the actual size and demographic makeup of the civilian non-institutionalized population. The raw data used in this analysis comes directly from the Census Bureau, which collects the data for the Bureau of Labor Statistics.1

Key Concepts and Terms. The labor force includes all workers, plus non-workers who have actively looked for work in the four weeks prior to the survey. The standard unemployment rate, referred to by the BLS as the U-3 rate, is calculated by dividing the number actively looking for work by the number in the labor force. The labor force participation rate is simply the share of people in the labor force.

Definition of Immigrant. The foreign-born in the CPS are all persons who were not U.S. citizens at birth. They include naturalized citizens, permanent residents (green card holders), temporary visitors, guestworkers, and illegal aliens. We use the term "immigrant" to encompass all of these foreign-born individuals. In Tables 1 and 2 we report figures separately for non-citizens and naturalized citizens. Tables 5 and 6 report figures for legal immigrants and illegal immigrants separately.

Identifying Illegal Immigrants. Prior research indicates that most illegal immigrants are included in Census data. To determine which respondents are most likely to be illegal aliens, CIS first excludes immigrant respondents who are almost certainly not illegal aliens — for example, spouses of native-born citizens; veterans; people who have government jobs; Cubans (because of special rules for that country); immigrants who arrived before 1980 (because the 1986 amnesty should have already covered them); people in certain occupations requiring licensing, screening, or a government background check (e.g., doctors, pharmacists, and law enforcement); and people likely to be on student visas.

The remaining candidates are weighted to replicate known characteristics of the illegal population (population size, age, gender, region or country of origin, state of residence, and length of residence in the United States). CIS has previously used the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as the source of those known characteristics; however, DHS data were last published in 2015. For more recent data, we turn to 2018 estimates from the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), including their estimates of educational attainment.2 The resulting illegal population, which consists of a weighted set of CPS respondents, is designed to match CMS on the characteristics listed above. However, we do not adjust the number of illegal immigrants for undercount in the CPS.3 Estimates for legal immigrants are calculated simply by subtracting estimated counts of illegal immigrants from the total immigrant population.

All of our findings that separate immigrants by legal status should be considered rough approximations only. Because we do not have information about the illegal immigrant population in 2020, we are forced to take the known characteristics of illegal aliens from 2018 and apply them to the new labor market data in 2020. The primary weakness of this approach is that it assumes the illegal immigrant population still has the same demographic profile (population size, age, gender, etc.) as it did in 2018.

Matching Published BLS Tables. In this report, all statistics covering the entire population, such as the headline unemployment rate, match those published by the BLS. However, the counts and percentages for sub-populations will in some cases be slightly different. The reason is that the Census Bureau adds "perturbations" to the public-use microdata to protect respondent confidentiality. Fortunately, the Census Bureau states that any differences between published figures and those calculated from the public-use data will be so small that they "fall well within the sampling variability associated with CPS estimates".4 In other words, there should be no meaningful difference between statistics calculated from the pubic-use data and those published by the BLS.

Finally, the figures in this report are not seasonally adjusted. Unadjusted figures are conceptually simpler and easier for other researchers to replicate.5 Also, the limited number of statistics on the foreign-born published in the BLS monthly "Employment Situation" reports are also not seasonally adjusted.

Potential Problems with the Data. The BLS reports a potential problem with the CPS.6 First, the response rate to the March, April, and May surveys were significantly lower than prior months. This increased the sampling error of the surveys for these months. Second, interviewers who administered the survey miscoded some respondents as employed when they were on furlough. Though these individuals expect to return to their jobs and are not looking for work, they should have been considered temporarily laid-off and coded as unemployed. This problem seems particularly pronounced in April and May. The number unemployed and the unemployment rate would be higher if these individuals were counted as unemployed. Neither the Census Bureau, which collects the data, nor the BLS has altered the data in response to these issues. Our analysis takes the raw CPS data as provided; and, our results match published figures, with the caveats about perturbations in public-use data discussed above.

Graph: Unemployment Rate, Natives and Immigrants

Graph: Number of Natives and Immigrants Unemployed

Graph: Unemployment Rate, Native Born Only, by Education

Graph: Unemployment Rate, Immigrants Only, by Education

Graph: Labor Force Participation for Less Educated Natives, May 2000 to 2020

Graph: Labor Force Participation for Less Educated Native Born Men, May 2000 to 2020

Table: Natives and Immigrants Employed and Unemployed

Table: Natives and Immigrants In and Out of the Labor Force

Table: Native and Immigrant Unemployment by Occupation, 2020

Table: Native and Immigrant Unemployment Rate by Occupation, 2020

Table: Number of Natives and Immigrants by Legal Status Working and Unemployment, 2020

Table: Number of Natives and Immigrants by Legal Status in and Out of the Labor Force, 2020

Table: Unemployment for Natives and Immigrants, by Select States

End Notes

1 "Basic Monthly CPS", U.S. Census Bureau, undated.

2 "State-Level Unauthorized Population and Eligible-to-Naturalize Estimates", Center for Migration Studies, undated.

3 In 2018, CMS estimated a total illegal immigrant population of 10.6 million, which includes an undercount adjustment for those missed in Census Bureau data. Our analysis of the CPS totals to 9.8 million illegal immigrants, reflecting a 7.5 percent undercount.

4 "Monthly Current Population Survey Public Use Microdata Files", U.S. Census Bureau, undated.

5 "Table A-7. Employment status of the civilian population by nativity and sex, not seasonally adjusted", U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 12, 2020.

6 The BLS has a long detailed discussion of potential problems with the data arising from the Covid-19 pandemic, which can be found here. Information is also provided in the commissioner’s statement which can be found here.