Foreign-born workers comprise about 14 percent of the U.S. labor force, according to data analyzed by the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank that studies migration issues worldwide. The foreign-born segment of the American work force includes legal and illegal immigrants. The typical stereotype of foreign-born workers is that they mostly hold agriculture or service sector jobs, earning little more than minimum wage (below minimum wage in some cases). Some recent studies have supported this view, while others have undermined it.
According to data analyzed by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington, D.C., immigrants account for more than 35 percent of workers in the farming and custodial/building maintenance industries. Immigrants account for nearly 30 percent of construction workers. The manufacturing and food service industries also employ large numbers of immigrants. A CIS analysis found that more than 20 percent of the workers in these two industry sectors are foreign-born.
Not all foreign-born workers are employed in low-paying, low-skilled occupations. The Migration Policy Institute study found that 19 percent of immigrant workers are employed in professional industries, including professional services, education and health care.
A clear picture of immigrant employment is not easy to obtain, especially in the case of illegal immigrants, who are often reluctant to reveal information about themselves for fear of being discovered and deported by the U.S. government.
The Pew Hispanic Center, another Washington-based research organization, found that not all illegal immigrants, many of whom come from Mexico and other Central American nations, pick crops or work as custodians and house cleaners. The center found that 20 percent of illegal immigrants work in construction, while 17 percent work in the leisure and hospitality industries. Another 14 percent are employed in manufacturing, and 11 percent in retailing.
Professor Robert J. LaLonde of the University of Chicago contends that the extent to which illegal immigrants affect employment and wages for native-born American workers is unclear. In some cases, LaLonde told The New York Times, illegal immigrants in service industries, such as house cleaning and daycare, make it easier for American workers to be more productive.