An Immigrant Nation, Defined by Racial Inequality

Over 44 million immigrants live in the United States, comprising about 13% of the population. Immigration to the U.S. has long been a topic of debate: who can come to the U.S., under what conditions, and when? These questions mirror the country’s discussion concerning how the country sees itself and how it views racial and ethnic groups and various nationalities. Immigrating to the U.S. is not merely entering into the American dream; it is entering into a classist and racist structure that significantly determines how a foreign-born person comes to the U.S., from which country they come, and what their socioeconomic future looks like. Stereotypes regarding different nationalities’ socioeconomic status reflect the story the nation tells itself on why some are “successful” and others are not.

There are more immigrants in the United States than in any other country. Although immigration has always played a vital role in the history and the making of the United States, from the colonial era to the California gold rush and Ellis Island, the United States recently saw immigration slow down during the Great Recession. In 2008, the Census Bureau released data from its American Community Survey that reported immigrant numbers had reached a plateau after years of increase.

Only 55 years ago did the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 pass, which removed the race-based immigration system that discriminated against non-Northwestern European groups. It was replaced with a preference system based on prioritizing refugees, attracting people with special skills, and reuniting family members living in the United States. Born out of the Civil Rights Movement, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 worked to desegregate our nation’s borders and advance racial equality. This immigration legislation was one of the last major pieces of legislation of the mid-20th century Black freedom struggle. The act continues to be a major force that shapes the United States’ racial and ethnic makeup.

Immigrants come into the country through various pathways: visitation, permanent residency, employment, education, as a refugee, or undocumented. Certain nationalities have a history of obtaining a specific visa; for example in the fiscal year 2016, India was the leading country in obtaining H-1B visas, and nationals from Mexico led in obtaining H-2B visas. A person entering into the U.S. with specific educational or skill levels shapes the migrant’s socioeconomic status and well-being, affecting the way that nationality is viewed as a whole.

The “model minorities” are groups of people who come to the U.S. documented with high education levels and a specialized skill for either schooling or employment. The selective immigration of highly educated nationalities from Asia has broadly put Asian Americans into the “model minority” myth. But among Asian immigrants, there are huge discrepancies and variances to how and why people migrate. Fifty-two percent of Chinese immigrants who come to the United States have at least a bachelor’s degree (while only 32% of Americans have a college degree), and many Chinese immigrants enter via H-1B visa, a type of classification obtained by foreign workers who perform specialized services in their occupation. In contrast, only 17% of Hmong immigrants migrate to the U.S. with a bachelor’s degree, and historically, the Hmong have come to the U.S. as refugees.

As we have noted, immigrants’ socioeconomic characteristics create income, education, and employment averages that vary compared to native-born groups. Pew Research Center reported that in 2013, Black immigrant’s median household income was $43,800, approximately $8,000 less than Americans overall at $52,000, but more than $10,000 more than U.S. born Blacks ($33,500). A similar trend is also true regarding education: 26% of Black immigrants hold a college degree, 4% below that of the overall U.S. population at 30%. However, more Black immigrants have a college degree than U.S. born Blacks (19%). Pew also notes how Black immigrant education varies significantly by birth region: About 35% of Black African immigrants over the age of 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree. Black South American immigrants follow with 25% holding college degrees. Caribbean immigrants and Central American immigrants are next, with 20% and 17% respectively holding college degrees.

Asian immigrants are reported to have a significantly higher median household income than overall immigrant households and U.S. born households. The Migration Policy Institute found in 2014, the median household income of Asian immigrants was $70,000, compared to the median immigrant household income of $49,000, and the U.S. born median income of $55,000. The household median income of foreign-born Hispanics in 2017 was $45,200, about $8,000 less than U.S. born Hispanics whose household median income was $53,000. Canadian and European immigrants tend to have significantly higher incomes than the native-born Americans? and overall foreign-born Americans?. In 2016, Canadian immigrant median household income was $77,000, and European immigrant median household income was $64,000.

In terms of income, immigrants mirror racial inequality that already exists in the United States. As previously stated, immigrants are entering a racial socioeconomic hierarchy that reflects their countries of origin and how and whether they are allowed to be in the country. Racial economic inequality as a framework is necessary to understand immigration into this country and how it often replicates the racial inequality that is native to the United States.