Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States

IV. Social and Economic Characteristics

Elementary and Secondary Education (K-12)

Children of unauthorized immigrants are 6.8% of students enrolled in kindergarten through grade 12. That share has grown from 5.4% in 2003. Students with U.S.-born parents account for 78% of school-age children; those with legal immigrant parents account for the remaining 15%.

Enrollment levels of children of unauthorized immigrants vary considerably from state to state. In five states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada and Texas—at least one-in-ten students in grades kindergarten through 12 have parents who are unauthorized immigrants. But in more than a dozen states, mainly those that have experienced little growth in immigration, less than one-in-fifty students (less than 2%) live with parents who are unauthorized immigrants.

Educational Attainment

The education profile of adults who are unauthorized immigrants differs markedly from that of U.S.-born adults and from that of other immigrants because unauthorized immigrant adults ages 25-64 are disproportionately likely to have very low education levels.

Nearly three-in-ten (29%) have less than a ninth-grade education; an additional 18% have some high school education but have not completed high school. The proportion of unauthorized immigrants with either less than a ninth-grade education or less than a high school education is roughly double the share of legal foreign-born residents with those educational levels. It is far greater than the share of U.S.-born adults—only 2% of those ages 25-64 have less than a ninth-grade education, and only 6% have additional years in high school, but no diploma.

Unauthorized immigrants are considerably less likely than both other immigrants and U.S.-born residents to have achieved at least a high school diploma. Among adults ages 25-64 who are unauthorized immigrants, 27% have finished high school and gone no further. The corresponding figure for legal immigrants is slightly lower at 24%; the U.S. born are slightly higher at 31%. But there are very large differences among the groups in the share that go beyond high school.

Most U.S.-born adults ages 25-64 (61%) and legal immigrants (54%) have attended college or graduated from college, compared with only one-in-four unauthorized immigrants.

Another way to look at the education distribution is that 22% of U.S. residents ages 25-64 with less than a high school education are unauthorized immigrants—a rate that is five times the proportion of unauthorized immigrants in the adult population. The share of unauthorized immigrants is even higher—35%—among those with less than a ninth-grade education.

Educational Attainment of Younger Adults

Among unauthorized immigrants ages 18-24, a large share has not completed high school (40%)—much more than among legal immigrants (15%) or U.S.-born residents (8%).

However, closer analysis indicates that a younger age of arrival in the United States by an unauthorized immigrant increases the likelihood of higher educational attainment. Of those who arrived at age 14 or older, 46% have not completed high school, compared with 28% of those who arrived before age 14. Among high school graduates ages 18-24 who are unauthorized immigrants, 49% are in college or have attended college. But among those in this age and status group who arrived at ages 14 or older, 42% are in college or have attended college. Among those who arrived before age 14, 61% are in college or have attended college.

While this “college continuation rate” is higher for unauthorized immigrants who arrive as young children, it is still considerably lower than the rate for legal immigrants (76%) or U.S.-born residents (71%).

Labor Force

About 8.3 million undocumented immigrants were in the labor force in 2008, a 5.4% share. The number and share of unauthorized migrants in the workforce increased steadily through 2007. The estimate for 2008 is not significantly different from 2007, so any assessment of recent trend is inconclusive because of the margin of error in these estimates.

Among undocumented immigrants ages 18-64, men are more likely to be in the labor force than are men who are legal immigrants or who were born in the U.S. Among men of working age, 94% of undocumented immigrants are in the labor force, compared with 85% of legal immigrant men and 83% of U.S.-born men.

The opposite is true for women. Only 58% of working-age women who are undocumented immigrants are in the labor force, well below the share of women who are U.S. born (73%) or legal immigrants (66%). The major reason for this is that a higher share of women who are unauthorized immigrants say they are not working because they are raising children at home—29%, compared with 16% of other immigrants and 8% of U.S.-born women.

[See Table B2]

Although they are more likely to be in the labor force than other groups, undocumented immigrant men were more likely to be unemployed (6.5%) than either U.S.-born or legal immigrant workers (each 5.6%) in March 2008. This represents a change from the pattern in recent years: In March 2005, for example, unauthorized immigrant men had a lower unemployment rate (4.5%) than did U.S.-born workers (5.9%) or legal immigrant workers (4.9%).

Disproportionately likely to be less educated than other groups, unauthorized immigrants also are more likely to hold low-skilled jobs and less likely to be in white-collar occupations. Consequently, undocumented immigrants are overrepresented in several sectors of the economy, including agriculture, construction, leisure/hospitality and services.

Among unauthorized immigrants in the labor force, 30% are service workers and 21% are construction workers. An additional 15% are production and installation workers. Fully two-thirds (66%) of unauthorized immigrant workers have occupations in these three broad categories; by contrast, only 31% of U.S.-born workers have such occupations.

A similar pattern appears in an analysis of the share of undocumented members of the labor force who are in particular industries—21% are in the construction industry and 20% in the services sector of the economy. An additional 17% are in the leisure and hospitality industry. The proportion of unauthorized immigrants in these industry groups (58%) is higher than the proportion of U.S.-born workers (31%) who are.


[See Table B5 for estimates by major occupation groups]

Construction occupations are a group in which the participation of unauthorized immigrants has grown substantially in recent years. The 17% share of construction occupations held by unauthorized immigrants represents a notable increase since 2003, when 10% of construction workers were unauthorized immigrants.

[See Table B3]


[See Table B6]

[See Table B4]


Low levels of education and low-skilled occupations lead to undocumented immigrants having lower household incomes than either other immigrants or U.S.-born Americans. In 2007, the median annual household income of unauthorized immigrants was $36,000, compared with $50,000 for people born in the United States. These differences in household income are particularly notable because the unauthorized immigrant households have more workers per household on average (1.75) than U.S.-born households (1.23).

[See Table B7]


Poverty rates are much higher among unauthorized immigrants than for either U.S.-born or legal immigrant residents. Among adults who are unauthorized immigrants, one-in-five (21%) is poor. In contrast, the poverty rate is 13% for legal immigrant adults and 10% for U.S.-born adults.

Among children whose parents are unauthorized immigrants, one-in-three is poor. The rate for children of unauthorized immigrants is similar whether the children are unauthorized immigrants (32%) or U.S. born (34%).

By contrast, there is a marked difference in poverty by nativity among children of legal immigrants. The poverty rate is higher for legal immigrant children born abroad (29%) than for the children of legal immigrants born in the United States (17%). For children of U.S.-born parents, 18% are in poverty, a figure not substantially different from the rate for U.S.-born children of legal immigrants.

Unauthorized immigrants are notably overrepresented in the poverty population. Undocumented immigrants and their U.S.-born children account for 11% of people with incomes below the poverty level. This is twice their representation in the total population (5.5%).

Health Insurance

Most undocumented adults (59%) had no health insurance during all of 2007, more than double the uninsured share among legal immigrants and four times the uninsured share among U.S.-born adults. The children of unauthorized immigrant adults are less likely than their parents to lack insurance, but their uninsured rate is still substantially higher than that of U.S.-born children.

Among unauthorized immigrant children whose parents are undocumented immigrants, nearly half (45%) do not have health insurance. Among U.S.-born children whose parents are unauthorized immigrants, 25% are uninsured. These large differences by nativity for health insurance coverage contrast sharply with the similar poverty rates by nativity for children of unauthorized immigrants. By comparison, both groups are more likely to be uninsured than are children of U.S.-born parents, 8% of whom lack health insurance.

Because of these high proportion without health insurance, unauthorized immigrants and their children account for one-in-six Americans without health insurance (17%)—more than three times their representation in the population. This share has increased since 2003, when the undocumented and their children were about one-in-seven of the uninsured (14%).

Homeownership and Mobility

Unauthorized immigrants are far less likely than other U.S. residents to own their own homes. Only 35% of unauthorized immigrant households are homeowners, half the rate of U.S.-born households. This difference is explained in part by legal status and in part by the greater affluence and older age structure of U.S.-born residents, who are better able to afford homes.

But even among undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for a decade or more, only 45% own their own homes. Longtime legal immigrants, on the other hand, are about as likely as U.S.-born households to be homeowners.

Undocumented immigrants are more likely to move, especially locally, than other immigrants or the U.S. born—18% of undocumented people changed residence in 2007-08, compared with 10% for other foreign-born Americans and 11% of U.S.-born residents. This difference is mainly a function of a much greater tendency among unauthorized immigrants to move locally (within states). These short-distance moves occur with much greater frequency among renters than homeowners.

The mobility rate has been declining for all U.S. residents, including unauthorized immigrants. In 2002-03, 21% of unauthorized immigrants changed residence.

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