immigration feature

Racial Wealth Snapshot: Immigration and the Racial Wealth Divide


The United States has more immigrants than any country in the world. In 2018, approximately 44.7 million immigrants lived in the United States, accounting for 13.7% of the country’s population. Although immigration has always played a key role in the history and the making of the United States, from the colonial era to the California gold rush and Ellis island, the United States 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 steady climbing. Today, in light of the coronavirus and the current administration, immigration to the U.S. is becoming more heavily restricted.

Immigration policy in the United States has been, and still is, greatly influenced by legacies of racism. Only 55 years ago did the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 pass, 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 those with family members living in the United States. Born out of the Civil Rights Movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 worked to desegregate our nation’s borders and fight for racial equality. It was one of the last major pieces of the mid 20th century Black freedom struggle that advocated for non-discriminatory immigration policy. The act continues to undergird the current immigration system and actively shapes the racial and ethnic makeup of the United States.


In 2017, most of the immigrants, 77%, in the United States reside in the country legally. Among the 77%, 45% are naturalized citizens, 27% are permanent lawful residents and 5% are temporary lawful residents. The remaining 23% are unauthorized immigrants. One in seven U.S. residents is foreign born, according to American Community Survey (ACS) data. Between 2017 and 2018, the foreign born population remained largely flat with a growth rate of less than 0.5% (about 203,000 people). 

In 2018, the top ten largest immigrant groups came from Mexico (25%), India (5.9%), China (3%) , the Philippines (4.5%), El Salvador (3.2%), Vietnam (3%), Cuba (3%), the Dominican Republic (2.6%), Korea (2%) and Guatemala (2%). In total, these ten countries collectively accounted for 57% of  immigrants in the U.S. Although the plurality of immigrants coming to the United States are from Mexico, more Asian immigrants have arrived in the most years since 2010. The 2009 Great Recession negatively impacted immigration from Latin America to the U.S., particularly slowing immigration from Mexico. Asians are expected to be the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by 2055, surpassing Hispanics. 

In 2017, the U.S. admitted fewer than 54,000 refugees, a historically low number after President Trump reduced the cap on refugee admissions, during a time when the number of refugees worldwide reached the highest levels since World War II. A refugee is a person outside their country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of nationality due to persecution or well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. In fiscal year 2019, the Democratic  Republic of Congo accounted for nearly 13,000 refugees, followed by Burma (4,900), Ukraine (4,500), Eritrea (1,800) and Afghanistan (1,200). Since fiscal year 2002, most of the refugees have come from Burma (177,700), Iraq (144,400) and Somalia (104,100). Since 2017, the U.S. has admitted more Christian refugees than Muslims, marking a sharp reversal from 2016 where the number of Muslim refugees admitted reached 38,900, a historic high. In fiscal year 2019, the U.S. only admitted about 4,900 Muslim refugees, compared to the admittance of 23,800 Christian refugees. 


In 2018, 12.6 million, or 32% of the 39.3 million immigrants in the United States over age 25 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, comparable to the 33% of U.S. born adults who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. However, educational attainment varies by country of origin. 80% of immigrants from India have a bachelor’s degree or higher, followed by 74% from the United Arab Emirates, 73% from Taiwan, 70% from Singapore and 69% from Saudi Arabia. Only 5.4% of immigrants from Micronesia hold a bachelor’s degree, 6.9% from the Marshall Islands, 7.2% from Mexico and 7.7% from El Salvador. 

The increased number of immigrants with bachelor’s degrees or higher is due partly because of changes in the origins of U.S. immigrants. In recent years, immigrants from Asia have surpassed Latin America as the largest source of newly arrived U.S. immigrants. Particularly, immigration from India and China have steadily increased, while immigration from Mexico has declined sharply. More than half of East and South Asian immigrants have at least a bachelor’s degree, and Asian immigrants make up the majority of H-1B visa holders and foreign students. 


The median income of foreign-born households in 2016 was $53,200, compared to U.S. born resident’s median household income of $58,000. Among foreign-born households, there are wide variances in  earnings depending on country of origin. Pew research reported that in 2016, Mexican foreign-born households earned $41,500, Central American households earned $43,000 and Caribbean households earned $44,000. Foreign-born households from South and East Asia earned $78,000, followed by Europe and Canada ($65,000), South America ($56,000), Middle East ($53,000) and Sub-Saharan Africa ($52,000). 


In 2016, 19.7% of foreign-born people residing in the United States lived in poverty, compared to the overall average of 12.7%. Nationals from the countries of Central America, the Middle East and Mexico faced the highest levels of poverty, respectively having a 26.8%, 26% and 24.6% rate of poverty. American Progress reported that working-class, immigrant families living under the federal poverty line rely less on social services and public benefits than comparable U.S. born households. Additionally, the children of immigrants account for one-third of all children in poverty


The unemployment rate for foreign-born workers in 2019 was 3.1%, down .4% from 2018’s rate. During the coronavirus, immigrant workers experienced a greater increase in unemployment during the first months of the pandemic than U.S. born workers. In April 2020, the unemployment rate among foreign-born men was 15% with foreign-born women at 18%, compared to U.S. born men and women at 13% and 15%, respectively. Although Congress passed a number of stimulus measures intended to provide economic assistance for individuals and businesses, the bills largely fail to provide meaningful support to immigrant and mixed-status immigrant families.

Racial Economic Inequality

Income, education and employment averages vary between immigrant and native born groups. Pew Research Center reported that in 2013, Black immigrants’ median household income was $43,800, approximately $8,000 less than Americans overall at $52,000, but $10,000 more than U.S. born Blacks ($33,500). Among Black immigrants, South Americans earned $55,000, the highest median household income, with African and Caribbean immigrants earning $43,000 and Central American immigrants making $41,400. 

A similar trend can be followed regarding education. 26% of Black immigrants hold a college degree, 4% below that of the overall U.S. population at 30%. However, more Black immigrants hold a college degree than U.S. born Blacks (19%). Black immigrant education varies greatly by birth region, about 35% of Black African immigrants over the age 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree. Black South American immigrants follow in second with 25% of college degree holders. Caribbean immigrants and Central American immigrants follow, with 20% and 17% of college degree holders. 

Asian immigrants are reported to have a significantly higher median household income compared to overall immigrant households and U.S. born households. In 2014, the median household income of Asian immigrants was $70,000, compared to the overall immigrant household income at $49,000 and the U.S. born median income at $55,000. However, the distribution of income among Asian immigrants varies greatly depending on country of origin. Immigrant households headed by Indians have the highest median income at $105,000, followed by Taiwanese ($91,000), Filipino ($82,000) and Malaysian ($80,000). Immigrant households from Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Burma comprise the lowest median incomes, with each household making $22,000, $27,000 and $38,000, respectively. 

Similarly, Asian immigrants tend to have higher levels of education than foreign or U.S. born adults. In 2016, more than half of immigrants from South and East Asia (52%) had a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 31% of U.S. born citizens and 30% of U.S. immigrants. Much like income among Asian immigrants, educational attainment varies greatly by country of origin. 77% of immigrants ages 25 and older from India come to the United States with at least a bachelor’s degree, followed  by Korea (54%), China (52%) and the Philippines (50%). Hmong, Laotian and Bhutanese immigrants have the lowest rates of higher education, with 17%, 16% and 9% of their immigrant population migrating with at least a bachelor’s degree. 

The household median income of foreign-born Hispanics in 2017 was $42,200, about $7,000 less than  U.S. born Hispanics who’s household median income was $53,000. Comparatively, the median household income for all Americans was $61,372. Immigrants from Mexico in 2017 were reported to have had a household median income of $44,000, while immigrants from Central America made $46,300 and immigrants from South America made $56,000. 

In 2017, 12% of foreign born Hispanics in the U.S. held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 20% of U.S. born Hispanics and 32% of all Americans. Recent changes in Hispanic immigration patterns are leading to an increase in educational attainment for Hispanic immigrants. Hispanic immigrants who migrated to the U.S. within the past 5 years have higher levels of education (26%) than Hispanic immigrants who have been in the U.S. for longer than 10 years (12%). 80% of immigrants from Spain who came to the U.S. within the past 5 years have a bachelor’s degree or higher, followed by 65% of immigrants from Venezuela,  64% of immigrants from Argentina and 41% from Colombia. Comparatively, only 17% of immigrants from Mexico who migrated to the U.S. within the past 5 years have a bachelor’s degree, followed by Honduras (12%), El Savador (8%) and Guatemala (6%). 

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 reported to be $77,000, and Europeanimmigrant median household income was $64,000. This is compared to the $54,000 household median income of all immigrants and $58,000 for all U.S. born. 

Similarly, Canadian and European immigrants over the age 25 have significantly higher educational attainment compared to both native and overall foreign-born populations. In 2016, 48% of Canadian immigrants had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 42% of European immigrants had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to 32% of U.S. born and 30% of all immigrants. 

Work Visas and Immigrant Professions

The type of immigration and visas obtained differ greatly. In 2018, nearly 1.1 million immigrants became lawful permanent residents, and of the 1.1 million, 52% obtained a green card. A green card may be obtained through a family relationship, employment sponsorship, humanitarian protection and the Diversity Visa lottery. The top five countries of birth for new permanent immigrants in 2018 were Mexico, representing 15%, Cuba (7%), mainland China (6%), India (5%) and the Dominican Republic (5%). 

Temporary visas are issued to people who come to the United States for a fixed state of time for reasons such as employment, education and visitation. These visas include the H-1B and H-2B programs that allow for foreign workers to perform specialty services or nonagricultural labor in the United States. In 2018, the U.S. State Department issued 9 million temporary visas to nonimmigrants. 43% of the nonimmigrant visas were obtained by nationals of mainland China, Mexico and India. Another 21% were obtained by nationals from Brazil, Argentina, the Philippines, Columbia, Israel, Ecuador and Nigeria. The nationals of the top ten countries accounted for 64% of temporary visas issued in 2018. China, India, South Korea, Brazil and Germany accounted for 39% of all student visas distributed in 2018, with China accounting for the majority of foreign students enrolled in U.S. higher education. 

The differences in earnings among immigrants with temporary visas are partially explained by types of occupation. In 2018, 27.2 million foreign-born workers were employed. 33% of them worked in management, business, science and arts, while 23% were employed in service. 16% worked in production, transportation and material moving, 15% worked in sales and office, and 13% worked in natural resources, construction and maintenance. 

Additionally, the type of work visas obtained, permanently (EB-1, EB-2, EB-3, EB-4 and EB-5) or temporary (H1-B or H2-B), will have an effect on determining the type of income a foreign born worker may have. For example, EB visas are employment based immigration programs. Those who obtain an EB-1 visa are nationals of, “extraordinary ability, an outstanding professor or researcher, or are a certain multinational executive or manager.” Similarly, the EB-2, EB-3 and EB-4 visas are skill and profession based. An EB-5 visa is a program that allows foreign investors to gain permanent residency, or a green card, in the United States on the condition that the foreign national invests $1 million, or $500,000 in a rural area, and that the investment results in the creation of at least 10 jobs. In fiscal year 2018, Chinese nationals received nearly half of EB-5 investor greencards, followed by nationals of India, Vietnam and South Korea. 

In contrast to permanent work visas, temporary work visas such as the H1-B, H2-B and H-2A are nonimmigrant work programs that allow for temporary occupation in the U.S. to perform labor. Workers who receive an H1-B visa usually occupy positions that require theoretical and technical skills, such as IT, architecture, accounting, mathematics and medicine, and usually require a bachelor’s degree or higher. 40% of H-2B jobs are landscaping and groundskeeping, and the second largest industry for H-2B jobs is forestry, comprising 8%. Amusement and recreation, hospitality, construction and restaurant work also comprise a significant portion of H-2B work. H-2A visas are granted to foreign workers who are seeking temporary employment strictly within agriculture. However, workers who perform agricultural labor under the H-2A visa are paid less than national averages. Nationals from the countries of Mexico, South Africa, Guatemala and Peru hold more than half of all H-2A visas.

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Racial Wealth Snapshot: Immigration and Racial Wealth Divide

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