Immigrants represent a steadily growing share of the American workforce, a trend that could be interrupted by U.S. efforts to overhaul immigration policy.
The number of foreign-born workers in the U.S. rose to nearly 27 million in 2016, up about 700,000 from the previous year and representing 16.9 percent of the nation’s labor force, according to an annual report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Thursday. That’s the highest proportion in records going back to 1996, when immigrants accounted for just 10.8 percent of the workforce.
The share has risen steadily over the last six years following a slight dip during the last recession when foreign-born workers suffered disproportionately as the collapse in the housing market took a toll on construction employment. From 1996 to 2016, the entire labor force rose by about 25 million, half of which came from gains among those born outside the U.S., the data show.
The report defines foreign born workers as individuals who reside in the U.S. but were born outside the country to parents who were not American citizens. It doesn’t distinguish between legally admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents, and undocumented immigrants.
The figures surface as the Trump administration’s immigration proposals — the construction of a wall on the southern border, a travel ban on citizens of six mostly Muslim countries, and a threat to withhold funding from jurisdictions that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities — face legal challenges and resistance among some lawmakers in Congress.
The White House also issued guidelines in March to make it harder for corporations to bring foreign technology workers to the U.S. through the high-skilled H-1B visa program.
While research findings on the extent to which immigrants help or hurt native-born workers are mixed, employers have become increasingly reliant on foreign-born labor to fill positions in industries ranging from construction to information technology, where qualified applicants are getting harder to find.
The data reinforce “how integrated immigrants have become” in the U.S. labor force, said Michael Fix, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington. He noted how foreign-born workers are increasingly spread across skill levels in the labor market.
Foreign-born workers are more likely than their native-born counterparts to work in industries ranging from construction and farming to computers and the life sciences, the Labor Department’s data show.
Jordan Yadoo, Bloomberg