The Immigrant Population In Profile

Implications for Policy with a Focus on Housing and Urban and Workforce Development









The U.S. immigrant population is growing, and today immigrants can be found in virtually every city across America. Immigrants are driving population growth in the Sun Belt, Pacific Northwest and Mountain States and helping to slow population decline in Middle America (Pew Charitable Trust 2014). Immigrants—meaning people born abroad not of American parents nor in the U.S. territories—help to inject economic vitality into the areas they locate by paying taxes, creating businesses, stimulating consumption, and meeting labor demand. But this population is not a monolith. Digging deeper into the data to learn what countries they come from, where they live, and the socio-demographic characteristics of their households can help us craft immigrant-conscious policies and programs that can foster the well-being of immigrants—and the communities where they live.

Policy Background

Immigration has come to be one of the most debated policy issues of the last decade, and one of the most politically divisive. Immigration policy determines who enters the country and under what terms, as well as the penalties for those who violate immigration laws. It assigns immigration statuses determining, for example, access to employment and government benefits and ability to bring family members from abroad. Some scholars have argued that immigration status is the new axis of stratification in contemporary American society (Jasso 2011).

     Since 2006, there have been several efforts to reform the immigration system, but to date no major immigration bill has been passed by Congress. In the last decade, most action affecting immigration has come from administrative rulings and presidential executive actions. Some have extended the period foreign students in certain occupations can stay after graduation the prevailing wages for temporary agricultural workers, and most recently, President Obama extended a stay of deportation for certain undocumented child arrivals and parents of children born in the U.S..

     In the meantime, the number of immigrants is growing and communities across the United States are seeing immigrants as assets. While immigration policy is the realm of the federal government, state and local areas can craft immigrant policies that attend to the better integration of its immigrants. According to the 2013 Immigration Report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, after 2012, many states shifted from a focus on enforcement measures to expanded benefits to immigrants. By June 2014, 18 states were offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants and 14 offered driving licenses or limited driving permits to the undocumented. National programs such as Welcoming Cities and Cities for Citizenship are examples of public/private initiatives that bring stakeholders on a local level together to promote the integration of immigrants.

     In addition to immigration and immigrant policies, the well-being of immigrants can also be attended through broad social policies. By sheer number alone, immigrants are a substantial share of the population affected by social policies, from housing to education, from the social safety net to workforce development.

     Incorporating the needs and perspectives of immigrants in these broad policies, and even adapting them to address this growing population, is a challenge faced by policy makers, service providers, and government agencies.

     Federal government agencies are becoming more immigrant-conscious and starting to pay attention to the needs of the immigrant population. For example, in July 2014, President Obama requested that the Department of Labor’s Office of Civil Rights issue guidance about the eligibility of immigrants to workforce development programs in his Job Driven Training initiative. Similarly, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the Department of Housing and Urban Development issued guidance on immigration status and housing discrimination. Other agencies have directly addressed the needs of immigrants, such as the Department of Education’s Office of Technical, Career and Adult Education (OCTAE), with its Networks for Integrating New Americans initiative, a five-city project (Providence, Boise, White Center, Lancaster, and Fresno) that seeks to position adult education programs as key contributors to advance immigrant integration. The Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation released Promising Practices for Increasing Immigrants’ Access to Health and Human Services, and the 2000 Executive Action 13166, “Improving Access to Services for Persons with Limited English Proficiency” requires all agencies that provide services to immigrants to develop plans to serve language minorities. It is also explicit now that some training funds for dislocated workers can be used for qualified foreign-trained immigrants (White House July 2014).

     Immigration and immigrant policy, both across states and more broadly, combine with policies that are immigrant-conscious to foster the social and economic success of this population. And although many of these polices target immigrants, many of them result in better policies and services for the overall population. For instance, making work safety campaigns more accessible to immigrants often results in better safety materials for all workers, and cities’ examination of the business formation process to make it easier and more accessible to immigrants also results in a more efficient process for all business owner prospects.

     Thorough knowledge of the characteristics of immigrants—age patterns, incomes, English proficiency, geographical location, and household characteristics—helps identify policy angles with the most leverage to attend to the needs of immigrants.


Size of the Immigrant Population and Their Status

From 2000 to 2013, the U.S. immigrant population grew by 33 percent, from 31 to 41 million (Graph 1). With the aging of the U.S. workforce and a decreasing fertility rate, it is expected that by 2050 virtually all population growth will come from immigrants and their children (Pew Charitable Trust 2014).

     The 41 million immigrants in the United States have varying immigration statuses conferring different rights, such as voting, getting a job with the federal government, the right to counsel in a deportation hearing, and access to employment and government benefits, among many others. Some immigrants are legal permanent residents, either because they entered the country with that status or adjusted their status after residing in the United States. Since 2002, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has awarded legal permanent residence to between 800 and 1.1 million people annually. Other immigrants hold temporary residence permits, and they include those who enter with temporary working visas, foreign students, those given temporary protection status because conditions in their home country are not safe to return to, or those with temporary stays of deportation covered by recent executive actions.

     Another segment of the immigrant population are refugees, who are required to adjust their status to legal permanent residents within one year of arrival. Still, other immigrants reside in the United States without authorization. Most unauthorized immigrants cross the U.S. borders without inspections. Others, possibly around 40 percent, entered with temporary permits and overstayed their visas (Pew Research Hispanic Center). Finally, a share of the foreign born population are naturalized citizens.

     The Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey are the most readily available data sets to assess the social and demographic characteristics of immigrants, yet these data sets do not contain information on immigration status other than whether the immigrant is a naturalized citizen or not. Pew Research and the DHS produce estimates of the numbers of legal permanent residents and unauthorized immigrants, adjusting for undercount and possible misreporting of citizenship. In 2012, DHS estimated that there were 13.3 million legal permanent residents and 11.5 million unauthorized people living in the U.S. DHS also estimated the number of nonimmigrant students and those with temporary work visas at 1.8 million. The count of naturalized citizens in the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey was 18.6 million.

     Immigration status affects the extent to which immigrants can benefit from certain social and economic policies, and access certain rights, and so the immigration debate of the last decade has focused heavily on issues pertaining to different groups of non-naturalized immigrants, such as whether the unauthorized should be legalized, how many temporary workers should be allowed under the various temporary worker visas, and how to prioritize who is granted legal permanent resident status.


Country of Origin and Place of Residence

Although the U.S. immigrant population comes from all over the world, 10 countries account for 58 percent of all immigrants. With 11.5 million people, Mexico is by far the largest sending country (Table 1). India and the Philippines follow with 2 and 1.8 million, respectively.

     Ten states are home to almost three of every four immigrants. California is home to 10.3 million immigrants and New York and Texas to 4.3 million each. Georgia, Virginia, and Washington each have between 944,000 and 973,000 immigrants.

     The top 15 metropolitan areas in terms of immigrant population size are on Table 3. The largest number of immigrants—5.6 million people—reside in the metropolitan areas of New York City, Newark N.J. and Jersey City, N.J. The Washington, D.C., metro area is home to 1.3 million immigrants and has the seventh largest population, although D.C. and Maryland were not among the top 10 states, and Virginia was ninth in terms of overall population. Of the top 15, the area with the largest percent of immigrants in its population—38.9—is the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, Fla. metro region.

     Table 2 focuses on the metropolitan areas with the largest populations, but the immigrant presence is growing in small and nonmetropolitan areas, outside the traditional concentrations of immigration. For instance, the cities of Wenatchee and Yakima, WA, Atlantic City, NJ, Gainesville, GA, and Reno, NV, all have immigrant populations of at least 14 percent.

     Table 3 shows the share of the immigrant population with limited English proficiency (LEP) in the top 15 metro areas. The LEP population is defined as foreign-born persons five years old or older who either do not speak English at all or speak English but not well. In the United States as a whole, 28 percent of the immigrant population is LEP. Of the 15 metro areas with the largest number of immigrants, Los Angeles has the highest share of LEP, with a whopping 37.1 percent. The Washington, D.C., area has the most English proficient population.

     Age distributions of immigrants and natives are illustrated in Graph 2. Immigrants under the age of 18 account for 6 percent of the immigrant population and 26 percent of the native population, but a larger share of immigrants are ages 25 to 54 compared to the share of native born Americans in that age range.

     One of the starkest differences between the U.S. native and immigrant populations is that almost a third of immigrants do not have a high school diploma (Graph 3). However, 27 percent have either a bachelor’s, master’s, professional or doctoral degree, which is the same share as the native population.



Household Characteristics

Of the 116 million households surveyed in 2013, 14 percent were headed by a foreign-born person (Graph 5). These households are much poorer than native households; more than two thirds earn incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, compared to only one third of native households.

     Immigrant households are also less likely to be homeowners than native born households. Although half of all immigrant households manage to own a home, at each income level immigrants are less likely to be homeowners (Graph 6) At the highest income levels with respect to the poverty level, 83 percent of native households own their home in comparison to 71 percent of immigrant households.

     The demographic characteristics of immigrant households give a sense of their demand for housing. Immigrants have less demand than native born Americans for homes geared toward persons age 65 and older, since only 16 percent of immigrant households are headed by an elderly person, in comparison to 24 percent of native households. Immigrants are likely to have a strong demand for homes designed for families with children since 56 percent of immigrant households contain children, while 37 percent of native households do. More than half—55 percent—of immigrant households contain a married couple at the helm, as compared to 47 percent of native households. The need for family housing is also seen in the generational composition of immigrant households. Among immigrant households, 59 percent contain two or more generations; among native households, only 39 percent do.




What’s Needed?

The large number of immigrants and their role in U.S. population growth generates impetus for maximizing their full potential via a broad realm of social policies. The socio-demographic characteristics of immigrants and their households can inform rural, urban, housing, and workforce development policies.

     For example, the high share of immigrants with very low levels of education and limited English proficiency restrict their mobility in an economy increasingly demanding of skills; thus workforce development policies should  assess the best way to improve their outlook. The numbers also call for more funding to and a rethinking of the way basic adult education and English as a second language training is delivered.

     The characteristics of the immigrant population also underscore the need for immigrant-conscious policies in housing and urban development. The large share of immigrants aged 25 to 34 suggests a large demand for housing, as two thirds of immigrant households contain children and 60 percent of those households are made up of two or more generations. Housing has to accommodate families, especially larger ones. The data also suggests a need for affordable housing, as 68 percent of immigrant households have incomes 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below.  Many immigrants live in high cost of living areas like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington D.C., hence local rental policies, assistance for renters, and education about housing discrimination is especially important in these cities.

     Urban development policies can be made more sensitive to the issues of immigrants. The large number of households with children means that communities where immigrants are locating need more schools, playgrounds,  and centers where children can go for after school activities. Local transportation authorities must also think how increases in the immigrant population affect demand for public transportation.

María E. Enchautegui is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.


(Photo credit: Flickr user Fovea Centralis, CC BY-ND 2.0)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.