More than 44 million immigrants live in the United States, comprising about 13% of the population. Immigration to the U.S. has long been a topic of debate: who can come, under what conditions and when? These questions mirror the country’s discussion concerning how it sees itself and how it views racial and ethnic groups and various nationalities. Immigrating here is not merely entering into the American dream. It is entering into a classist and racist structure that significantly determines a foreign-born person’s socioeconomic future. Stereotypes regarding different nationalities’ socioeconomic status reflect the story the nation tells itself about why some are “successful” and others are not.
The United States has more immigrants than any country in the world. Although immigration has always played a vital role in the history and the making of the United States, from the colonial era to the California gold rush and Ellis island, the country recently saw immigration slow down during the Great Recession. In 2008, the Census Bureau released data from its American Community Survey that reported immigrant numbers were leveling off after years of steadily climbing.
It was only 55 years ago that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 passed, which removed the race-based immigration system that discriminated against non-Northwestern European groups. It was replaced with a preference system based on prioritizing refugees, attracting people with special skills and reuniting family members. Born out of the civil rights movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 worked to desegregate our nation’s borders and advance racial equality. This was one of the last major pieces of legislation of the mid-20th Century Black freedom struggle. The act continues to undergird the current immigration system and actively shapes the United States’ racial and ethnic makeup.
Immigrants come to this country through various pathways: visitation, permanent residency, employment, education, as a refugee, or they enter undocumented. Certain nationalities have a history of obtaining a specific visa. For example, in 2018, Chinese nationals received nearly half of the EB-5 investor green cards. In the fiscal year 2016, India was the leading country in obtaining H-1B visas, a type of classification obtained by foreign workers who perform specialized services in their occupation. Nationals from Mexico led in obtaining H-2B visas, which allows foreign workers to come temporarily to the United States to perform nonagricultural labor and services on a one-time, seasonal basis.
A person entering into the U.S. with specific educational or skill levels shapes the migrant’s socioeconomic status and well-being, affecting the way that nationality is looked at as a whole. “Model minorities” are groups of people who come to the U.S. documented with high education levels or specialized skills. The selective immigration of highly educated nationalities from Asia has broadly put Asian Americans into the “model minority” myth. But among Asian immigrants, there are huge discrepancies and variances to how and why people migrate. For example, 52% of Chinese immigrants who come to the United States have at least a bachelor’s degree (only 35% of Americans have a college degree) and many enter via H-1B visas. In contrast, only 17% of Hmong immigrants, who have historically migrated to the U.S. as refugees, have a bachelor’s degree.
As we have noted, immigrants’ socioeconomic characteristics create income, education and employment averages that vary compared to native-born groups. Pew Research Center reported that in 2013, the median household income for Black immigrants was $43,800, approximately $8,000 less than Americans overall, but roughly $10,000 more than U.S.-born Blacks ($33,500). A similar trend is also true regarding education — 26% of Black immigrants hold a college degree, 4% below that of the overall U.S. population. However, more Black immigrants have a college degree than U.S.-born Blacks (19%). Black immigrant education varies significantly by birth region. About 35% of Black African immigrants over the age of 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree. Black South American immigrants follow in second with 25% college degree holders. Caribbean immigrants and Central American immigrants follow, with 20% and 17% of college degree holders respectively.
Asian immigrants are reported to have a significantly higher median household income than overall immigrant households and U.S.-born households. In 2014, the median household income of Asian immigrants was $70,000, compared to the immigrant household income of $49,000, and the U.S.-born median income of $55,000. The household median income of foreign-born Hispanics in 2017 was $42,200, about $7,000 less than U.S.-born Hispanics whose household median income was $53,000. Canadian and European immigrants tend to have significantly higher incomes than the native-born and overall foreign-born. In 2016, Canadian immigrant median household income was $77,000, and European immigrant median household income was $64,000.
In terms of income, immigrants mirror racial inequality that already exists in the United States. As previously stated, immigrants are entering into a racial socioeconomic hierarchy reflected in how they are allowed or, in the case of undocumented, not permitted to be in the country. Racial economic inequality is a frame necessary to understand immigration into this country and how it often replicates the racial inequality that is native to the United States. To better understand immigration and the socioeconomic status of immigrants, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition has published a new racial wealth snapshot.
Sally Sim is a Race, Wealth and Community intern.
Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is NCRC’s chief of Race, Wealth and Community.