The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What most people don’t understand about immigrants — but should

Four graduates are silhouetted between columns of a university building

There is a lot of debate about how immigrants help or hinder the United States. And researchers across a range of disciplines and ideological camps have reached some vastly different conclusions.

There is, however, ample statistical evidence that immigrants are clustered in certain industries (many of them low-wage), on average have more children and — among recent immigrants, at least — are more educated than their American-born counterparts.

If that last fact surprises you, it shouldn't.

It turns out that among all recent immigrants (those who arrived after 2007), their education levels far outpace those of native-born Americans, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. A full 41 percent of immigrants — both legal and illegal — who moved to the United States between 2007 and 2013 have a bachelor's degree or more. That's true of just 30 percent of the U.S.-born population. (And, by the way, that 30 percent even represents a historic high.)

But this is not a new phenomenon. On the whole, immigrants in the United States have actually been more highly educated than the native-born since at least 1970, according to a new Pew analysis — at least if you're talking about just college degrees.

Here's a look at long-term immigrant education trends among these two groups.

Of course, there are still a lot of people in the United States — immigrants and native-born — with limited education, specifically a high school diploma or less. And, although this really should go without saying, we're going to state this plainly here: Those figures, no matter where a person was born, are almost always shaped by a short list of personal choices and a longer list of social factors.

The only real difference for those born in the United States vs. those born outside of it, is how early in life the ramifications of those social disparities begin to become undeniably clear. In developing countries, many villages and small towns and even some cities have no free schools or only schools that will take a child through elementary or middle school. Parents have to marshal all sorts of resources they may not have to send their children to larger cities or boarding schools to take their education further.

In wealthy and industrialized countries such as the United States, public school is a given and high schools are universally available (quality is, of course, a separate and major issue). So, the question of social and personal resources and individual choices comes up a little later in life.

That is why there are still more native-born Americans with high school educations than recent immigrants. That also is why, inside the United States, the children of people with college degrees are more likely to obtain one, too.

The absence of a college degree does, without question, narrow the range of jobs that a person is likely to get, the industries in which a person is likely to work and the income they are likely to take home. But it's certainly not the only force shaping opportunity in the United States.

U.S.-born workers are more widely dispersed in the labor market — meaning that they apparently can be hired to do a wider range of jobs. That's also a pattern that happens to hold for women and in the employment rates and earnings of black and Latino college graduates. In short, people who are not white, American-born and male still face more difficult odds in getting jobs in the United States than those who are not. If you doubt that, we would encourage you to look closely at the unemployment rates by education, race and gender in this chart.

These patterns, by the way, are part of what make some people assume that most minority and immigrant workers hold low-wage jobs and/or are happy to do so. (We're thinking of you, John Kasich.) And, in some ways, those folks are right about big labor-force patterns. There are workers who represent an exception, but the patterns are clear. What people who subscribe to Kasich-like concepts about immigrant and minority workers are guilty of is not thinking enough about the underlying causes of those patterns.

A 2012 Bookings Institute analysis of the entire — not just the recent — immigrant population revealed the rather pronounced ways in which immigrants living in the United States are clustered — some would say trapped — in mostly low-wage industries. Look closely at that last column. That's household help. And even in high-wage fields such as medicine, science and technology, immigrants make up large portions of the workforce but are far less likely to hold senior-level jobs, many a study has found.

Again, this was written 20 years ago:

In short, the fact-finding report tells us that the world at the top of the corporate hierarchy does not yet look anything like America. Two-thirds of our population, and 57 percent of the working population, is female, or minorities, or both. Nor, ominously, does the population of today’s executive suite resemble the workforce of America’s future. Women and minority men will make up 62% of the workforce by the year 2005.

Although some progress has been made, the patterns also hold in 2015.

Now, for those who need some hopeful news, there is some evidence that for immigrants, at least, these patterns are starting to change, with more immigrants moving into jobs that require a high school diploma but not college, a 2010 analysis from the Migration Policy Institute found. But the key words here are "starting to change."

Those who fear the presence of immigrants will, no doubt, reject this alternative view of competition between immigrant and American-born workers for jobs. But the patterns in the charts above should raise real and persistent questions about just how fair and merit-based the American workforce really is.