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Illegal US immigrants are far likelier to be working than American men

AP Photo/Nick Ut
While they’re more likely to be employed, undocumented workers are more likely to work in relatively low paid service sectors.
By Matt Phillips
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This post has been corrected.

Men who come to the US illegally are more likely to be employed than native-born American males, according to a new paper from Harvard University’s George Borjas, an authority on the economic impact of undocumented workers in the US.

It’s not a surprise that many undocumented immigrants come to the US to work. But the Borjas study is an ambitious attempt to shed light on how undocumented immigrants in the US have typically interacted with the US labor market over the last two decades.

The outcomes are clear. Employment rates of undocumented immigrants are sharply higher than those of native-born American men. Borjas found that 86.6% of illegal immigrants had work compared to 73.9% of native-born males when looking at a sample from 2012-2013. That 13-percentage-point gap shrinks once Borjas controlled for the fact that undocumented immigrants tend to be younger than native-born men. But it remains wide, with employment rates of undocumented workers 10 percentage points higher than native men of a similar age.

Such a revelation could influence US policy toward the some 11.4 million undocumented immigrants who resided in the US as of 2012. Their presence is a high-profile political issue, most recently helping drive the candidacy of Republican hopeful Donald Trump.

Undocumented workers now account for roughly 5% of the total US labor supply. Previous work co-authored by Borjas found that their presence has driven down wages of low-skilled US workers in recent years.

Borjas’ findings are part of a global story in which the poorer residents of the rich economies, such as the US, have been losing ground as globalization and trade have lifted large chunks of the world population out of poverty.

Rising standards of living in places such as China and among immigrants both legal and undocumented in the rich world would clearly be a good thing.

But to the extent those gains have been driven by damage to the poorer portions of the rich world as well as rising inequality in the world’s richest countries, they should be thought about carefully.

Correction: An earlier version of this post reported that the gap in employment rates between native-born men and undocumented immigrants was 16 percentage points. It is 13 percentage points.

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