The following excerpt is from the report, Immigration and a Changing America, published by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Population Reference Bureau. This report is one of several in the new series, “The American People,” which sets the results of Census 2000 in context and collectively provides a portrait of the American people in a new century. Each report is written by an author or team of authors selected for their expertise with the data and their broad understanding of the implications of demographic trends.

(November 2004) Debates about the effects of immigration on America invariably focus on the economic impacts of immigrants on the wages and employment of American workers and on the economy in general. Do immigrant workers take jobs that American workers will not do, or do they displace U.S.-born workers? Do they compete with American workers for low-wage jobs? How does immigration affect the employment of minority workers? Do immigrants fuel economic growth in the communities where they settle? The underlying economic issues are complex, and answers depend upon the level of analysis (federal, state, or local); whether analysts look at the short-term versus long-term impact of immigration; the costs and benefits considered; and the human capital characteristics of immigrants.1

By looking at the characteristics of immigrants, it is possible to obtain some sense of the range of possible effects. As such, the analysis that follows focuses on providing an overview of the trends and characteristics of the foreign-born in the American labor force and the diversity of the economic contributions of immigrants.

Labor Force Participation

Data from the 2000 Census indicate that, of the 8.7 million new immigrants ages 18 to 59 who arrived in the United States in the 1990s, 5.6 million were in the labor force in 2000. Between 1990 and 2000, the total U.S. labor force increased by 14.4 million. Thus, recent immigrants accounted for 41 percent of labor force growth in the 1990s, compared with only 11 percent in the 1960s. Moreover, the percentage of the total labor force that is foreign-born reached 12 percent in 2000, compared with 6 percent in 1960.

The foreign-born, however, are not evenly distributed across the country and thus constitute a much greater share of the labor force in some metropolitan areas. At the high end, in 2000, over half of metropolitan Miami’s population and 63 percent of its labor force were foreign-born. The large Cuban enclave in Miami stands out as a thriving foreign-born community that offers a wide range of employment opportunities to Cubans, other immigrants, and Americans. Immigrants also have a big impact on the economies of Los Angeles and New York. About one-third of the populations in those metropolitan areas and just over 40 percent of their labor forces were foreign-born in 2000. Other California cities had heavily foreign-born labor forces as well. One-quarter of California’s population was foreign-born, as was 30 percent of its labor force. No other state exceeded those levels.

In several large metropolitan areas, immigration had very little impact on the labor force. Though larger metropolitan areas tended to have higher foreign-born labor force compositions, there were many exceptions. Chicago, the nation’s third-largest metropolitan area, had a labor force 20 percent foreign-born; but in the fourth- and sixth-largest metropolitan areas, Philadelphia and Detroit, only 8 percent and 9 percent, respectively, of the labor force was foreign-born. In Washington, D.C., the fifth-largest area, 22 percent of the labor force was foreign-born.

In general, the foreign-born constituted a smaller share of the labor force in moderate to small metropolitan areas. For instance, the 17 metropolitan areas that had populations from 400,000 to 500,000 in 2000 had foreign-born labor force compositions of 7 percent, on average.

Employment rates for U.S.- and foreign-born men have been comparable since 1960. About 90 percent of men, regardless of nativity, worked in the year prior to the 2000 Census (see figure). The employment rates for foreign-born and U.S.-born women were also comparable in 1960, but then began to widen in subsequent decades as immigration increased. Women’s employment rates increased dramatically from 1960 to 1990, rising from 48 percent in 1960 to 79 percent for U.S.-born women and from 48 percent to 68 percent for foreign-born women. While the employment of U.S.-born women continued to rise slowly during the 1990s and reached 81 percent by 2000, the rate of foreign-born women remained constant. By 2000, there was a 13 percentage point difference between U.S.-born and foreign-born women in employment rates.

America’s foreign-born groups vary greatly in their employment rates. Among the 44 largest foreign-born groups, men ages 25 to 54 from France and the United Kingdom had the highest levels of employment in 2000 (95 percent and 94 percent, respectively). Indian and Canadian men also had above-average employment rates at 93 percent; and Irish, German, Polish, and Argentine men were at 92 percent. Lower levels of employment, in contrast, occurred among men from origin countries that sent large numbers of unauthorized labor migrants to America. That group included Dominican men (83 percent) and Haitian men (85 percent). Mexican men had an employment rate of 88 percent in 2000, close to the foreign-born average. Rates for men from origins that included large numbers of refugees were also relatively low—79 percent for Cambodian men and 82 percent for Laotian men.

The highest levels of employment among foreign-born women were achieved by Jamaicans (85 percent); Filipinas (84 percent); Nigerians (79 percent); Trinidadians (79 percent); Haitians (77 percent); Romanians (77 percent); and Panamanians (77 percent). The lowest rates of employment occurred for women from Pakistan (46 percent); Bangladesh (52 percent); Mexico (56 percent); Japan (56 percent); and Israel (60 percent).

Mary M. Kritz holds appointments as senior research associate, Population and Development Program, Department of Development Sociology, Cornell University; and as secretary general and treasurer of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP).
Douglas T. Gurak is a professor in Cornell University’s Department of Development Sociology and an associate of its Population and Development Program.


  1. George J. Borjas, “The Labor Demand Curve is Downward Sloping: Reexamining the Impact of Immigration on the Labor Market,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics (November 2003): 1335-74; David Card, “Immigrant Inflows, Native Outflows, and the Local Labor Market Impacts of Higher Immigration,” Journal of Labor Economics 19, no. 1 (2001): 22-64; and James P. Smith and Barry Edmonston, eds., The New Americans: Economics, Demographic, and Fiscal Effects of Immigration (Washington, DC: National Research Council, 1997).