A Description of the Immigrant Population: An Update

June 3, 2011

In 2009, about 39 million foreign-born people lived in the United States, making up more than 12 percent of the U.S. populationthe largest share since 1920. Naturalized citizens (foreign-born people who have fulfilled the requirements of U.S. citizenship) accounted for about 17 million of the total. Noncitizens (foreign-born people authorized to live and work in the United States either temporarily or permanently and people who are not authorized to live or work in the United States) accounted for about 22 million of the total. The native- and foreign-born populations differ in a variety of characteristics, such as age, fertility, educational attainment, occupation, earnings, and income. Among the foreign born, naturalized citizens differ from noncitizens, and people from some parts of the world differ from people from other parts on most of those characteristics. A new CBO publication the latest in CBOs series on immigration updates and expands upon CBOs November 2004 publication A Description of the Immigrant Population. That publication included data through 2003; this document includes data through 2009. Some highlights from the first six exhibits include:

  • In 2009, about 38 percent of foreign-born people in the United States were from Mexico or Central America; the next-largest group came from Asia and accounted for 27 percent of the total foreign-born population.
  • About one-fifth of naturalized U.S. citizens were from Mexico or Central America; more than one-third were from Asia. About half of the noncitizens living in the United States in 2009 were from Mexico or Central America, and about one-fifth were from Asia. An estimated 62 percent of noncitizens unauthorized to live in the United States were from Mexico.
  • From 2000 to 2009, more than 10 million people were granted legal permanent resident (LPR) status in the United States. Legal permanent residents are permitted to live, work, and study in the United States. Over the past two centuries, the main areas of origin of legal permanent residents in the United States have changed from primarily Europe and Canada to Asia, Mexico, and Central America.

As shown in exhibits 7 through 13, foreign-born people live throughout the United States, and in some states they represent a substantial fraction of the population. In addition, foreign-born people as a group differ in several important ways from their native-born counterparts. In particular:

  • In 2009, more than 1 in 4 people in California and more than 1 in 5 people in New York and New Jersey were born in another country. Conversely, in 31 states, fewer than 1 person in 20 was foreign born. The foreign-born share of the population increased in all but three states between 1999 and 2009.
  • The four states with the highest concentrations of unauthorized residents in 2009 were Nevada, California, Texas, and Arizona. Almost half of all unauthorized residents of the United States were living in those states.
  • Compared with the native-born population, relatively few foreign-born people are under the age of 25. In 2009, only 15 percent of the foreign-born population was under that age, compared with 37 percent of the native-born population. In contrast, nearly three-quarters of the foreign-born population was of working age (between 25 and 64 years old), compared with about half of the native-born population.
  • Marriage and fertility rates are generally higher among young foreign-born women than among their native-born counterparts.
  • In 2009, 29 percent of the foreign-born population between the ages of 25 and 64 had not completed high school, compared with 8 percent of the native-born population. Some groups of foreign-born people, however, had more education than did their native-born counterparts. About 55 percent of people from Asia had at least a bachelors degree, as did 47 percent of people from Europe and Canada; just 32 percent of the native born population had earned at least a bachelors degree.

The remaining 7 exhibits highlight the labor market characteristics of the foreign-born and native-born populations. The report shows that:

  • Foreign-born men are more likely to be working or looking for work (that is, to be in the labor force) than are native-born men. Foreign-born women, however, are less likely than native-born women to be in the labor force.
  • Workers from Mexico and Central America are concentrated in a different set of occupations than are people from other regions of the world. In 2009, 21 percent of workers from that region were in construction, mining, agriculture, or related occupations, compared with 5 percent of native-born workers. Reflecting their high level of educational attainment, 39 percent of workers from Asia were in the professional or technical occupations, compared with 30 percent of native-born workers in those occupations.
  • The amount of annual earnings among foreign-born workers varied greatly by country of origin. For example, in 2009 the median annual earnings of male workers from Mexico and Central America was $22,000. Among male workers from Asia, the median was $48,000; among male workers from Europe and Canada, it was $53,000; and among native-born male workers, it was $45,000.
  • In 2009, 25 percent of noncitizens lived in poverty, compared with 11 percent of naturalized citizens and 14 percent of native-born people.

This update was prepared by Jonathan Schwabish and Nabeel Alsalam of CBOs Health and Human Resources Division.