Because U.S. immigration policy is skewed toward admitting relatives of immigrants and U.S. citizens rather than immigrants with needed workplace skills, our immigration system imports poverty. An immigrant sponsor need only demonstrate income at 25 percent higher than the poverty level, a level which permits even the sponsor access to some public assistance programs. While immigrants are denied access to federal welfare assistance for their first five years in the country, that prohibition does not apply to their children.
Overall, 18.6 percent of immigrants are in poverty, compared to just 12.5 percent of natives. Poverty rates for the foreign-born population, including both naturalized citizens and noncitizens, remained steady over the 2000-07 period.1 The median income per worker among immigrants is 17.7 percent lower than among natives, and the median illegal worker earns 36.2 percent less.2
Child poverty has been particularly affected. In 2007, noncitizen children were twice as likely to be in poverty as native children, 32.1 percent to 17.5 percent.3 Children of illegal alien parents, both those foreign-born and those U.S.-born, have similar poverty rates, while children of immigrant parents are poor at about the same rate as native children.4 Even when adjusting for other factors, such as single-parenthood, joblessness, and low education, the children in illegal alien households still suffer substantially more from poverty.5
Compared to children of natives, children of immigrants are more than four times as likely to live in crowded housing (29 percent versus 7 percent), twice as likely to live with a family paying more than half its income for rent or mortgage (14 percent versus 6 percent), more than twice as likely to be uninsured (22 percent versus 10 percent), more than three times as likely to have no usual source of health care (14 percent versus 4 percent), and more than twice as likely to be in only fair or poor health (9 percent versus 4 percent).6
Immigrants, who are disproportionately poor themselves, also contribute to a host of economic problems for poor Americans. Some have argued that immigration has a positive impact on the American economy, but most academic studies show that America's least fortunate bear the brunt of immigration's impact. Economists Andrew Sum and Ishwar Khatiwa estimate that high school-only workers are underutilized at a rate of 20 percent, which increases to 35 percent for high school dropouts. Persons who worked in construction, food preparation, cleaning, and farming were in the most under-utilized occupational categories.7 Even before the housing bubble burst, Georgia's 2000-2007 influx of illegal immigration (bringing the illegal share of the labor force from 4 to 7 percent) reduced construction wages in the state by 11 percent.8 While well-to-do Americans may be content with immigrants' fiscal burden in exchange for slightly cheaper food or cleaning services, poor Americans have lower wages, fewer job opportunities, and more encumbered social services as a result of competition from immigrants.
Our country could do a better job helping the poor (be they native or immigrant) pull themselves out of poverty. But the war against poverty has been made unwinnable by an immigration policy that continually imports yet more poverty, condemning us to be perpetually bailing out a leaking boat. Immigration law should be changed to eliminate preferences for extended family members and instead emphasize education and skills so that there is a better fit between the skills of immigrants and the nation's needs.
Updated June 2010
- "Characteristics of the Foreign-Born Population," Table 1.1, Current Population Survey, March 2007; "Poverty Status of the Population by Sex, Age, and Citizenship Status," Current Population Survey, March 2000.
- "A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States," Pew Hispanic Center, April 14, 2009.
- "Characteristics of the Foreign-Born Population," op. cit.
- "A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States," op. cit.
- "Children of Immigrants: A Statistical Profile," National Center for Children in Poverty (Columbia University), September 2002.
- Randy Capps, "Hardship among Children of Immigrants: Findings from the 1999 National Survey of America's Families," Urvan Institute, February 2001.
- Andrew Sum, Ishwar Khatiwa, et. al., "Labor Underutilization Impacts of the Great Recession of 2007-2009," Center for Labor Market Studies (Northeastern University), March 2010. Sum and Khatiwa's measure, generated using CPS data, is very similar to the U-6 unemployment measure tracked by BLS. It includes the unemployed, workers employed part-time for economic reasons, and all members of the labor force reserve. The U-6 measure uses the same first two categories, but uses workers who are "marginally attached to the labor force" rather than the labor force reserve, or all workers who have given up looking for a job for economic reasons. Sum and Khatiwa used the entire labor force reserve rather than just the marginally attached because they "found only very small differences in their future job seeking behavior."
- Julie L. Hotchkiss and Myriam Quispe-Agnoli, "The Labor Market Experience and Impact of Undocumented Workers," Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, June 2008.