Economic opportunity is a primary attraction for many immigrants to the United States. In 2007, labor force participation among the foreign born was higher than that among natives (Table 1).1 Foreign-born workers have historically made up a sizeable part of the labor force (Figure 1).
In 1900, about 20 percent of the employed labor force had been born outside the United States.2 More restrictive immigration polices instituted in the 1920s reduced the size of the foreign-born labor force until, in 1970, only about 5.2 percent of U.S. workers were foreign born. However, changes in immigration policies in the 1960s and later decades have led to a new wave of immigration.3
Today, there are greater numbers of foreign-born workers in the United States than ever before—23.9 million in 2007.4 They represented about 16 percent of the total labor force—lower than the equivalent proportion at the turn of the last century, but still a notable part of the U.S. economy.
This report uses data from the 2007 American Community Survey to describe the foreign-born labor force in the United States.5 It focuses on the civilian labor force, which included more than 99 percent of both foreign-born and native-born workers.
1 The terms “native” and “native born” are used interchangeably in this report.
2 The definitions of “foreign born” and “labor force” have changed over time. In 1900, the foreign-born labor force included all foreign born 10 years old and over employed in gainful occupations, including those in the armed forces. Later decades saw increases in the minimum age of workers, exclusion of non-White foreign born from tabulations, later reinclusion of all foreign born, and inclusion of those who were unemployed but looking for work. The present definition of the foreign-born labor force has remained unchanged since 1970 and includes all foreign born 16 years old and over who are employed or looking for work or are in the military.
3 Schmidley, D., 2001, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports, Series P23-206, Profile of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 2000, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
4 All comparative statements in this report have undergone statistical testing and are significant at the 90-percent confidence level unless otherwise noted.
5 This report discusses the U.S. labor force at the national level. However, there may be geographic variations. Appendix Tables A and B provide data on the foreign-born labor force by state.