Immigrants make up nearly 20% of the US workforce — just over 30 out of 168 million — and participate in the labor force at a higher rate than native-born workers, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
“Foreign-born workers” are people who “reside in the United States but who were not US citizens at birth. Specifically, they were born outside the United States (or one of its outlying areas such as Puerto Rico or Guam), and neither parent was a US citizen.” The BLS’s definition includes both legal and undocumented immigrants.
The labor force participation of both foreign- and native-born workers has generally declined between 2007 and 2023, the period for which the BLS has labor force data. But the participation rate of foreign-born people has increased faster than the native-born rate after both hit a record low in 2020 (particularly for foreign-born women), during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How many immigrants are currently working in the US?
There were 30.21 million foreign-born people employed in the US in September 2023. There are 31.34 million in the total foreign-born labor force, which includes those who are employed and unemployed.
Foreign-born workers represented 19% of both the active labor force and the total possible labor force in September 2023.
How does that number compare to the number of native-born workers?
There were 131.46 million native-born workers employed in the US in September 2023, out of a total native-born labor force of 136.68 million. The native- and foreign-born populations had similar unemployment rates, of around 3.6%.
How has the participation rate of immigrants in the workforce changed over the last 15 years?
Immigrant participation in the US workforce declined through most of the 2010s, hitting a low of 64.5% in May 2016. It leveled out at the end of the decade before dropping — to 62.6% — in May 2020 during the pandemic. Since then, it has generally risen and was 67.1% in September 2023, lower than 2008’s 68.4% but higher than the pre-pandemic level of 65.9% in September 2019.
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The labor force participation rate is “the percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population 16 years and older that is working or actively looking for work.” The biggest dip in the participation rate for immigrants was in 2020 — between January and April, it fell from 66.5% to 61.8%. The native-born workforce followed a similar trajectory, as businesses closed during COVID-19 lockdowns. Native-born labor force participation declined from 65.5% in September 2008 to 61.8% in 2023, lower than the 2019 rate of 62.6%.
After the COVID-19 low, the labor force participation rate of foreign-born workers rose faster than that of their native-born colleagues. In September 2023, the foreign-born labor force participation rate was 67.1%, and the native-born rate was 61.8%.
How do the employment rates and unemployment rates of immigrant and native-born workers compare?
Employment and unemployment rates for both groups are similar, with a September 2023 unemployment rate of 3.6% for both foreign- and native-born workers.
Have employment and unemployment rates of foreign-born and native-born workers changed over the last 15 years?
In September 2008, the Great Recession pushed unemployment rates up: 5.5% for immigrant workers and 6.0% for native-born workers. The unemployment rate declined through the 2010s before spiking again in 2020 during the pandemic.
In August 2019, the unemployment rate for foreign-born workers was 3.13%, and for native-born workers, it was 3.92%. As of August 2023, unemployment rates for both foreign- and native-born workers are similar to pre-pandemic rates at 3.71% and 4.00%, respectively.
As of 2022, a higher percentage of the foreign-born workforce was male (57.2%), compared to the native-born workforce (52.3% of which is male).
In general, the labor force participation rate for women increased at a greater rate than the participation rate for men from 2021 to 2022, with foreign-born women seeing the greatest expansion in their representation. Foreign-born women had a lower participation rate than foreign-born men or native-born workers of either gender, but it grew from 53.4% in 2021 to 55% in 2022.
In terms of race and ethnicity, nearly 75% of the foreign-born labor force was Hispanic or Asian. Labor force participation remained relatively stable from 2021 to 2022 for foreign-born white and Asian workers, but it increased for foreign-born Black (69.4% to 72.7%) and Hispanic workers (66.0% to 67.3%).
Overall, median weekly earnings for full-time foreign-born workers in 2022 was 86.9% of what their native-born counterparts earned. Foreign-born men brought home $1,000 a week, compared to $1,185 for native-born men. Foreign-born women earned $861, compared to $975 for native-born women.
In some instances, foreign-born workers out-earn their native-born counterparts. Foreign-born Hispanic workers earned 83.3% of their native-born Hispanic counterparts, whereas foreign-born Black (+8.3%) and Asian (+2.6%) workers earned more than their native-born counterparts. White foreign-born workers earned 13.4% more than their native-born counterparts. Earnings also vary depending on factors such as education level, gender, race, and industry.