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U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services workers in Irving, Texas. The USCIS processes millions of “green card” applications to live and work in the U.S. fevery year.


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The share of U.S. workers born outside the country rose again last year, hitting the highest level in decades, boosted by steady immigration and a drop in the native-born birthrate.

Foreign-born workers—those not born in the U.S. nor have U.S. citizens as parents—accounted for 17.5% of all U.S. employees in 2018, up from 17.1% in 2017, the Labor Department said Thursday. The category includes people born abroad who are now U.S. citizens, immigrants and those in the U.S. temporarily.

The share of workers from abroad has generally trended up in the past two decades amid slower growth of the native-born population, experts said. Last year’s level was the highest since records began in 1996.

There were 27.2 million U.S. workers who were born outside the country last year, up 3.7% from a year earlier. That was an acceleration from 1.8% growth in 2017, and the fastest rate of foreign-born employment growth since 2012.

Growth rates can be variable from year to year, but the trend in the past decade has been strong growth in foreign-born workers and a small gain for native born. The number of foreign people in the U.S. labor force—including workers and those seeking jobs—rose 17.2% in 2018 from 2008. The native-born labor force increased by 2.8% in that time.

There has been no change to that broader trend since President Trump took office in January 2017, said Jeanne Batalova, senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

“It takes years for people to invest to come to the United States to join their families or for employment reasons,” she said. “They’re not going to be dissuaded from that.”

There has been a slowdown in enrollment of foreign students in U.S. colleges, a potential source of future workers, she said. That may reflect students’ concerns about their ability to obtain future work permits, but also reflects that Canada, Europe and China have become more aggressive in recruiting foreign students.

The foreign-born category include legally admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary workers, students and undocumented immigrants. The data doesn’t separately identify people in these categories.

Data for people first arriving in the U.S. in 2018 isn’t yet available, but Ms. Batalova said there has been no significant change in recent years in the number of green cards and worker-visas issued. She said the rate of illegal boarding crossings has slowed, but that slowdown began before the 2016 election. Ms. Batalova said that reflects an improved Mexican economy and lower birthrates there as much as any U.S. enforcement changes.

Thursday’s report showed foreign-born people were more likely to work or seek work. In 2018, the labor-force participation rate of the foreign born was 65.7%, the Labor Department said. The participation rate for the native born was 62.3%.

The average unemployment rate for foreign-born people was 3.5% in 2018, down from 4.1% in 2017. The jobless rate of native-born people was 4.0% in 2018, down from 4.4% in 2017.

“The top overall reason for people to come to the United States is for employment,” Ms. Batalova said.

Write to Eric Morath at

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