Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

The Role of Foreign-Born Workers in the U. S. Economy: Foreign-Born Workers Have Come to Play an Increasingly Important Role in the U.S. Economy; between 1996 and 2000, They Constituted Nearly Half of the Net Increase in the U.S. Labor Force. (the Role of Foreign-Born Workers)

Academic journal article Monthly Labor Review

The Role of Foreign-Born Workers in the U. S. Economy: Foreign-Born Workers Have Come to Play an Increasingly Important Role in the U.S. Economy; between 1996 and 2000, They Constituted Nearly Half of the Net Increase in the U.S. Labor Force. (the Role of Foreign-Born Workers)

Article excerpt

As the 21st century begins, the ethnic and racial composition of the U.S. workforce continues to diversify at a rapid pace. Much of that change reflects an expansion in the share of foreign-born workers, from about 1 in 17 in 1960 to 1 in 8 workers today. (1) Additionally, the geographic areas of origin of those workers have shifted. In 1960, about 3 in 4 of the foreign born had come from Europe; today, that proportion is less than 1 in 6, largely reflecting the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. The large increase in the number of foreign-born workers, which has occurred in recent years, has contributed to the U.S. labor force expansion during that period. Between 1996 and 2000, the foreign born constituted nearly half of the net labor force increase. (2)

This article first reviews the history of immigration, focusing on the changing national origins of the foreign born; then, it presents a comparison of labor force characteristics of the foreign-born population with those of the native-born population; and finally, discusses the role of the foreign born in regards to the labor force growth that occurred between 1996 and 2000. (3) In this article, contrary to the customary BLS practice of counting Hispanics (an ethnic group) as part of the race category to which they belong, Hispanics are not included in the estimates for whites, blacks, and Asians, but, instead, are shown separately. (4) This was done because currently Hispanics constitute a large proportion of the foreign born, and they have distinctive characteristics, which will be outlined further throughout this article. Hence, if they were included in the estimates for the major race group, clear-cut comparisons of employment characteristics among the groups would be difficult to make. The data used in this study are primarily from the Current Population Survey (CPS), the monthly survey of about 60,000 households conducted by the Bureau of the Census for the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (5)

Whence come the foreign born?

Over the past 2 centuries, the geographic sources of immigration to the United States have changed. (6) During the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, immigrants generally came from two areas of the world, Northern Europe and Africa. Most often, the European immigrants came from the British Isles, with a major influx moving from Ireland around the middle of the 19th century, as large numbers of the Irish fled starvation and disease, brought about by the potato blight that struck much of Europe at that time. The African slave trade, which had begun during the Colonial era to provide workers in the New World, continued through most of the first half of the 19th century, despite laws that attempted to ban it. (7)

Moreover, Asia was a source of immigrants after 1848, as Chinese contract laborers were brought largely to the West Coast to work both in the gold mines and on the transcontinental railway. The large influx of Chinese laborers, however, was ended with the Chinese exclusionary legislation that forbade Chinese immigration. (8)

By the early 1900s, European immigration patterns had shifted, with the majority of the newcomers arriving from southern and eastern Europe. These people were often poorly educated and came from areas with cultural and linguistic traditions that were considerably different from those of northwestern Europe. Further, among the Europeans immigrating to the new country were sizable numbers of Roman Catholics. (9)

In 1917, Congress passed a Literacy Act to restrict European immigration, and in 1921, the Emergency Quota Act was also passed, which applied immigration quotas based on nationality or country of origin. The provisions of this act were extended and made more restrictive by the National Origins Act of 1924. The quota system was reaffirmed in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952. Aside from a few exceptions, these quotas remained relatively intact until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed, which eliminated the system of national origin, race, or ancestry quotas for immigration to the United States. …

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