Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Size of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Workforce Stable After the Great Recession

1. Industries of unauthorized immigrant workers

Unauthorized immigrants are unevenly distributed across some industrial sectors and occupations in the U.S. economy. Compared with their 5% share of the overall civilian workforce, they are a higher share in some types of employment and a lower share in others. They tend to cluster in sectors and occupations that offer low-skilled work, due in part to their low educational attainment and the limitations placed on employment by their legal status. However, in all sectors, there are more U.S.-born workers than unauthorized immigrant workers. (See the table here for data on workers’ status by major industry.)

In 2014, unauthorized immigrants accounted for 17% of the workforce in the U.S. agriculture industry and 13% of the construction industry workforce, notably higher than their representation in the labor force overall. Even so, the number and share of U.S.-born workers in both sectors were notably higher, accounting for 69% of agricultural industry employment and 76% of construction industry employment. In these two sectors the number (and share) of unauthorized immigrant workers was slightly higher than that of lawful immigrant workers; in all other sectors, the number of lawful immigrant workers was substantially larger than for unauthorized immigrants.

Unauthorized immigrants are somewhat overrepresented in the leisure and hospitality sector, where they made up 9% of the workforce in 2014. In this sector, though, they were a lower share of the workforce than both U.S.-born employees (79%) and lawful immigrant employees (12%).

Some subsets of each major industry have particularly high concentrations of unauthorized immigrants among their workers. About a fifth or more of the workforce in the crop production industry (22%), private household employment (22%) and the landscaping industry (21%) consisted of unauthorized immigrants in 2014. Disproportionately high shares of unauthorized immigrants also worked in the apparel manufacturing industry (19%), the building maintenance sector (19%) and the dry cleaning and laundry industry (18%). (See the table here for data on specific industries.)

How is the unauthorized immigrant workforce distributed across industrial sectors? A disproportionate share of unauthorized immigrants are employed in the business and other services sectors. These sectors cover a wide range of establishments such as legal services, advertising, landscaping and waste management, as well as personal services such as dry cleaning, nail salons and car washes. Fully 22% of unauthorized immigrants worked in these sectors in 2014, compared with 16% of U.S.-born workers.

A notably higher share of unauthorized immigrants (16% in 2014) work in the construction industry compared with U.S.-born workers and lawful immigrants (6%) each. Unauthorized immigrants also are more likely to work in the leisure and hospitality sector (18% did in 2014) compared with U.S.-born and lawful immigrant workers (each 10%).

In 2014, the agriculture and mining industries employed only 5% of all unauthorized immigrant workers, but that is higher than the share of U.S.-born workers (2%) who held jobs in that industry.

In some industries, the disparity is in the other direction. For example, 23% of U.S.-born workers were employed in the educational and health services sector in 2014, compared with only 7% of unauthorized immigrants who were so employed. An additional 7% of U.S.-born workers were employed in the financial sector, compared with 3% of unauthorized immigrant workers. The transport and utilities sector employed 5% of U.S.-born workers in 2014, but 3% of unauthorized immigrant workers.

State industry patterns

Echoing the national pattern, agriculture and construction are the industries where unauthorized immigrants make up the highest share of the overall civilian workforce in the largest number of states. Agriculture ranked first in 19 states in 2014 and second in nine more. Nationally, unauthorized immigrants accounted for 17% of workers in the agriculture industry in 2014, but were 5% of the total U.S. workforce. Construction ranked first in 16 states in 2014 and second in 16 more.1

Looked at from another perspective – how unauthorized immigrant workers are distributed across industry sectors – the picture changes somewhat. Construction ranked first in 2014 as the industry that employs the largest share of unauthorized immigrant workers in 14 states, more states than any other industry. Nationwide, 16% of unauthorized immigrant workers were employed in the construction industry. The leisure and hospitality sector ranks second, employing the largest share of the unauthorized immigrant workforce in 10 states in 2014. (See tables here for the top industries for unauthorized immigrants by state in 2014).

  1. This report includes estimates of the number of unauthorized immigrants by industry in 43 states and the District of Columbia where there are enough unauthorized immigrants in the workforce to provide reliable data.
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