Who Are the Immigrants? A Statistical View of the Foreign-Born Population at Mid-Decade

Oct 17, 2006

The foreign-born population in the United States exceeded 35 million at mid-decade. Who are these immigrants and what do we know about them?

The Pew Hispanic Center's “Statistical Portrait of the Foreign Born at Mid-Decade” provides a detailed look at this population and allows for comparisons with the native-born population. Presented as a series of 32 tables, the statistical profile is based on the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, which was fully implemented for the first time in 2005 and now draws on a yearly sample of about three million addresses. It is by far the largest household survey in the United States. Previously, such detailed demographic data was only available through the decennial census.

The statistical profile divides the foreign-born population into six areas: Mexico, South and East Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and the Middle East. The 2005 ACS recorded the foreign-born population at 35.8 million, a 16% increase since 2000. Although the foreign-born population accounted for 12% of the total U.S. population it represented about one-third of the total population increase over the last five years.

There were 11 million Mexicans, accounting for about 31% of the foreign-born population. Almost a quarter of the foreign born, or about 8 million, were from South and East Asia. Among all foreign born, 46% arrived before 1990, 32% in the 1990s and 22% since 2000.

The states with the highest numbers of foreign born are still the traditional “gateway” states: California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois. The foreign-born population in these five states alone accounted for 62% of all foreign born in the country. In California, the foreign born accounted for more than a quarter (27%) of that state's population. Mexicans were the majority in California, Texas, and Illinois while those from the Caribbean were the majority in New York and Florida.

About 9.1% of foreign-born women gave birth in the year prior to the survey, compared with 6.6% among native-born women. About a quarter of foreign-born women with a birth in the year prior to the survey were unmarried, compared with 36% among native-born women. Caribbean women had the highest rate among foreign-born women (44%) while those from the Middle East had the lowest rate (3%). Foreign-born families were also generally larger than native-born families.

The age structure of the foreign-born population was also markedly different from that of the native born. Only about 18% of the foreign-born population was under 25, compared with 37% among the native born. A majority of the foreign-born population (61%) was also concentrated in the prime working years, ages 25 to 54. By comparison, 41% of the native-born population was in this age group. The proportion 55 and older among the foreign-born population was only slightly smaller than among the native born (21% and 23% respectively).

Among the foreign born 25 and older, about 23% were high school graduates, compared with 31% among the native born. There were significant differences by region of origin, however. Among immigrants from South and East Asia, about 49% were college graduates or had advanced degrees, by far the largest of any group. About 42% of Mexicans and 32% of Central Americans had less than a ninth grade education.

Educational differences have translated to marked differences with respect to occupation groups as well. The Mexican and Central American immigrants were concentrated in low-skill occupations while those from the Caribbean and South Americans were concentrated in office and administrative support. Those from South and East Asia and the Middle East were concentrated in management and other occupations that require higher skills. Mexican and Central American immigrants had the lowest median personal earnings ($17,000 and $19,000) while those from the Middle East and South and East Asia had personal incomes of about $30,000.

Nearly half (49%) of the foreign-born population under age 18 reported speaking English very well compared with 30% among those 18 and over. More than three quarters (77%) of Mexicans 18 and older reported speaking English less than very well, the highest among the foreign born.

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