Election Blog Most US immigrants are already skilled
Julia Gelatt
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While the subject of immigration and refugees has been often raised in this year’s presidential campaigns, it has largely focused on potential threats imposed by immigrants, approaches to immigration enforcement for unauthorized immigrants, and on security checks for refugees admitted to the country.

For example, in Sunday’s presidential debate, the only immigration topic raised was on the number of Syrian refugees who should be admitted to the United States, and whether refugees are properly vetted to prevent admission of potential terrorists.

Meanwhile, following a recent National Academies report on the economic and fiscal impacts of immigration, immigration experts and stakeholders have been debating broader reforms to the US immigration system, including questioning the proper skill mix of immigrants admitted to the United States.

The National Academies report concludes that immigrants have little effect on the long-term wages and employment of US-born workers’ wages and employment, and to the extent there are short-term effects from lower-skilled immigrants, these are limited to some small negative impact on the wages of prior waves of immigrants and US-born workers without a high school diploma.

The report also finds that the effect of high-skilled immigrants is to increase both employment and wages of all native-born workers (both high and low skill) and that these immigrants often expand the economy.

And the topic did come up once on the campaign trail, in Donald Trump’s immigration speech in Arizona in late August where Trump, influenced by the immigration position of his running mate, Mike Pence, called for selecting immigrants based on their likelihood for success and their “merit, skill, and proficiency.”

Indeed, the country is long overdue for a serious discussion about the selection priorities established in our legal immigration system, which most stakeholders agree is not serving our national interests. But in doing so, policymakers should take note that the education levels of US immigrants have shifted over the past several decades such that most are already skilled.

As shown in the graph below, the educational attainment of recent US immigrants has increased rapidly over the past 40 years. In 1970, over half of recent immigrants had less than a high-school diploma. In 2012, 53 percent of new immigrants had some college education, and 16 percent had a graduate degree.

This figure includes all foreign-born individuals: those who entered through the legal employment-based system, those entering through family sponsorship, those on longer-term temporary visas, refugees and asylum seekers, and unauthorized immigrants.

Educational attainment of recent immigrants

Comparing immigrants’ educational attainment with that of US natives shows that immigrants are more likely than US-born individuals to have a college degree and are more likely to have less than a high school diploma. As a result, the average educational attainment of immigrants has not quite converged with that of US-born workers.

But in looking just at those ages 25-34, who are in their early working years, US-born residents and new immigrants now look very similar in their average years of schooling.

Average years of educational attainment, US-born and immigrants

Whenever a future Congress and future president are ready to seriously discuss the skill mix the country desires in new immigrants, it is vital that the conversation starts with an accurate understanding of where we stand. 

Research Areas Immigrants and immigration