Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants in the United States

Evin Millet
Center for Migration Studies

Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants in the United States

Highly educated immigrants, who finished college or higher education, are an integral part of the United States’ labor force, boosting productivity, innovation, and economic growth. [1] The Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) estimates that there are 1,714,700 highly educated undocumented immigrants aged 18 and older who hold a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, a professional degree beyond a Bachelor’s degree, or a Doctoral degree living in the United States. [2] Among highly-educated undocumented immigrants who hold at least a Bachelor’s degree, 41 percent continued their education after their college graduation (Figure 1). 

Figure 1. The Educational Attainment of Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants (Aged 18 and Older)

Source: CMS estimates using the one-year 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data

Approximately 72 percent of the total highly-educated undocumented population in the United States come from just 10 countries. India is the top country of origin (27 percent), followed by Mexico, China, Venezuela, Korea, the Philippines, Brazil, Colombia, Nigeria, and El Salvador (Table 1). 

Table 1. The Estimated Number of Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants (Aged 18 and Older) by Country of Origin

Source: CMS estimates using the one-year 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data

This population is mostly concentrated in four states: California (21 percent), Texas (12.8 percent), Florida (8.1 percent), and New York (7 percent). Less than 7 percent of the highly-educated undocumented population live in any other single state (Table 2).

Table 2. The Estimated Number of Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants (Aged 18 and Older) by State

Source: CMS estimates using the one-year 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data

Roughly half (48 percent) of the highly-educated undocumented immigrant population is female.  Furthermore, half (50 percent) of the undocumented immigrants with at least a Bachelor’s degree are Asian (Non-Hispanic); 29 percent Hispanic; 12 percent white (Non-Hispanic); 7 percent Black (Non-Hispanic); and 2 percent other races. [3] Looking more specifically at the race composition for each higher education degree shows that Asians are significantly more likely to hold a Master’s or Doctoral degree compared to others (Figure 2). While Hispanic immigrants comprise a large share of the highly-educated undocumented population with a Bachelor’s degree or additional professional degree beyond a Bachelor’s degree, they do not further pursue Master’s and Doctoral degrees at the same rate. The shares of white, Black, and other race groups stay relatively even through the different educational levels.

Figure 2. Racial Composition of Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants (Aged 18 and Older)

Source: CMS estimates using the one-year 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data

Figure 3 shows the most common countries of origin for each higher education degree. The top three countries of origin for undocumented immigrants with a Bachelor’s degree are Mexico (19 percent), India (18 percent), and China (6 percent); for those with a professional degree beyond a Bachelor’s, Mexico (19 percent), Venezuela (15 percent), and India (14 percent); for those with a Master’s degree, India (49 percent), China (13 percent), and Mexico (5 percent); and for those with a Doctoral degree, China (37 percent), India (16 percent), and Korea (8 percent).

Figure 3. Country of Origin of Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants (Aged 18 and Older)

Source: CMS estimates using the one-year 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data

Highly-educated undocumented immigrants have similar employment rates to highly-educated documented immigrants and the US-born overall, but they are also more likely to be in the labor force. Among the highly-educated undocumented immigrants, 81 percent are in the labor force, as opposed to 75 percent of highly educated documented immigrants and the US-born. Among those highly-educated in the labor force, roughly 98 percent of the US-born and 97 percent of documented and undocumented immigrants are employed. [4]

The occupational composition of this group can be seen in Figure 4. The majority of highly-educated undocumented immigrants work in Management, business, science, and arts occupations while Natural resources, construction and maintenance occupations exhibit the lowest share of employment.

Figure 4. Occupational Composition of Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants

Source: CMS estimates using the one-year 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data

While the share of immigrants who are working in Management, business, science, and arts occupations increases from 59 percent to 73 percent when comparing undocumented immigrants to documented immigrants, the share of those in Service occupations decreases from 13 percent to 7 percent comparing undocumented to documented status (Figure 5). These findings indicate that immigrants who are documented are more likely to be employed in high-skilled occupations compared to undocumented immigrants with similar qualifications. This difference is reflected on wages and salaries as well. The average wage and salary income for highly-educated working undocumented immigrants is $73,522, as compared to $87,378 for highly-educated documented immigrants.

These estimates underscore the importance of legal status for undocumented immigrants. Legalization will not only promote fair return for highly-educated immigrants, but also stimulate productivity, innovation, and tax revenue. In addition, knowledge spillovers associated with increased education work as an engine of growth for local and national economies, because personal investment in education has been found to increase the productivity of others as well. [5] Hence, the full integration of highly-educated undocumented immigrants into the labor market would have an exponential effect in local economies.

Figure 5. Occupational Composition of Highly-Educated Documented Immigrants

Source: CMS estimates using the one-year 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data

Table 3 shows the top 10 occupations in which highly-educated undocumented immigrants are employed. Low skilled occupations, such as Maids and housekeeping cleaners and Retail sales persons, being in the top 10 occupational groups for highly-educated undocumented immigrants could be an indicator of the difficulty for undocumented immigrants to find jobs that match their skill sets. The findings also suggest that the racial composition of immigrants varies among different occupations. For instance, among highly-educated undocumented immigrants, while 88 percent of Software developers and 78 percent of those in other Computer occupations are Asian, 71 percent of Maids and housekeeping cleaners, and 49 percent of Retail salespersons are Hispanic. These estimates reveal that race may also play an important role in the line of work in which undocumented immigrants can find employment.

Table 3. Top 10 Occupations for Highly-Educated Undocumented Immigrants (Aged 18 and Older)

Source: CMS estimates using the one-year 2019 American Community Survey (ACS) data

Each US state sets its own policies for providing in-state tuition and financial aid to undocumented immigrants. As of July 2022, 14 states [6] and the District of Columbia have policies which provided statewide access to in-state tuition and at least some state financial aid and scholarships to undocumented residents. Four states [7] provide statewide in-state tuition, but without access to financial aid or scholarships. Five states [8] give undocumented residents access to in-states or reduced tuition at at least some state public institutions. Seven states [9] only allow Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients access to in-state tuition, but not other undocumented residents. Five states [10] do not allow any undocumented students nor DACA recipients to access in-state tuition or financial aid, and three states (Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) bar undocumented students from enrolling in all or some public institutions, though exceptions may be made for DACA recipients. The remaining states do not have explicit policies regarding in-state tuition for undocumented students. State policies which provide access to in-state tuition and financial aid and scholarships to undocumented students have been shown to increased college enrollment and graduation rates among the undocumented, while not having any effect on the enrollment or graduation rates of US-born students. [11] [12]

CMS offers estimates of US foreign-born populations that are eligible for special legal status programs and those that would be eligible for permanent residence (legalization) under pending bills. [13] Populations eligible for legalization and legal status under the programs displayed here can be eligible for more than one program. This population of highly-educated immigrants with certain education and age characteristics would especially be eligible under multiple programs for legal status change.

The Dream Act of 2021 provides conditional permanent residence and removal of conditions on permanent residence for undocumented immigrants who were younger than 18 years of age on their date of entry into the United States, have been continuously physically present in the United States for four years preceding the bill’s enactment, and meet educational and other requirements specified in the bill. [14] The findings for highly-educated immigrants who would be eligible for conditional permanent residence and removal of conditions on permanent residence under the Dream Act of 2021 suggest that a large share of this population speak English well, very well, or only English and have a household income above poverty level. A high percentage of those who could be eligible for direct adjustment to lawful permanent residence (LPR) status for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) recipients under the Promise Act also have a household income above poverty level (Table 4). The findings also point out that the percentage of immigrants within this population who have health insurance is about 74 percent, leaving 26 percent of this population without health insurance.

The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act provides lawful permanent resident status to those who have worked essential jobs during the pandemic and their spouses, parents, and children, as well as to the spouses, parents, and children of immigrants who performed essential labor and died from COVID-19. [15] Estimates show that a large number of highly-educated undocumented immigrants would be eligible for LPR status under this program. This group also  has a high level of English proficiency and a large share has a household income above poverty level. 

On the other hand, the highly-educated immigrants who are eligible for certified agricultural worker (CAW) status under the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, which would provide undocumented farmworkers and their family members with a path to legal immigration status and citizenship, seem to have a low English proficiency. [16] Additionally, a low share of this group appear to have health insurance and to live above the poverty level when compared to other groups. 

The US Citizenship Act of 2021 establishes lawful prospective immigrant status to noncitizens who meet certain requirements, and after at least five years with this status, an eligible noncitizen may apply for permanent resident status. The bill also provides permanent resident status to eligible noncitizens who (1) entered the United States as a minor, (2) were eligible for temporary protected status or deferred enforced departure on January 1, 2017, or (3) worked a certain amount of agricultural labor in the five years prior to applying. [17] According to CMS estimates, all highly-educated undocumented immigrants would be eligible for LPR status under the US Citizenship Act of 2021.

Overall, highly-educated undocumented immigrants have high English proficiency, and a high percentage of them have a household income above poverty level. Even though this group is more likely to find a job due to their high education levels, their access to health insurance is still limited. The percentage of those who do not have health insurance varies from  21 percent to 38 percent. Less than half of this population own or are buying a house despite their high engagement in the labor market. The share of this population who work in the agricultural sector show differences from the rest of this population, with lower English proficiency rates, health insurance coverage, and home ownership. Language barriers and a lack of legal status may be one of the reasons that highly-educated undocumented immigrants are employed in agricultural sector rather than high skilled and higher paying industries. Therefore, government and advocacy groups should consider these differences when implementing targeted policies and programs. The passing of pending legislative and administrative programs would provide legal status to the overwhelming number of highly-educated undocumented immigrants and allow them to fully participate in the labor force, helping to fill labor shortages while also increasing innovation, productivity, and tax revenue.

Table 4. Estimates of the Number of the Population Affected by Legislative / Administrative Programs

 


[1] Hunt, Jennifer, and Marjolaine Gauthier-Loiselle. 2010. “How Much Does Immigration Boost Innovation?” American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics, 2 (2): 31-56. https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w14312/w14312.pdf.
Peri, Giovanni, Shih, Kevin and Sparber, Chad, (2015), STEM Workers, H-1B Visas, and Productivity in US Cities, Journal of Labor Economics, 33, issue S1, p. S225 – S255. https://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:ucp:jlabec:doi:10.1086/679061.
Zavodny, M. and VThe, H., 2003. The H-1B program and its effects on information technology workers. Economic Review-Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, 88(3), pp.33-44. https://nfap.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/The-Impact-of-H-1B-Visa-Holders-on-the-U.S.-Workforce.NFAP-Policy-Brief.May-2020.pdf.

[2] CMS estimates are based on the 2019 American Community Survey Microdata. See Kerwin, Donald, José Pacas, and Robert Warren. 2021. Ready to Stay: A Comprehensive Analysis of the US Foreign-Born Populations Eligible for Special Legal Status Programs and for Legalization under Pending Bills. Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS). New York, NY: CMS. https://cmsny.org/publications/ready-to-stay-report/.

[3] CMS estimates of Black, Asian, White, and other races refer to people who do not also identify themselves as Hispanic.

[4] Among highly-educated undocumented immigrants, (aged 18 and older), 77.9 percent are employed, 19.5 percent are not in the labor force, and 2.6 percent are unemployed. Among highly-educated documented immigrants (aged 18 and older), 72.6 percent are employed, 25.2 percent are not in the labor force, and 2.2 percent are unemployed (97 percent of this group who are in the labor force are employed, and 3 percent are unemployed). For the US-born population (aged 18 and older), 73.1 percent are employed, 25.1 percent are not in the labor force, and 1.8 percent are unemployed (98 percent of this group who are in the labor force are employed, and 2 percent are unemployed).

[5] MA, Y. 2014. New Ideas in the Air: Cities and Economic Growth Rising Disability Rolls: Causes, Effects, and Possible Cures A Closer Look at the German Labor Market ‘Miracle’ Research Rap. Business Review. Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia. Volume 97, Issue 4. https://www.philadelphiafed.org/the-economy/regional-economics/new-ideas-in-the-air-cities-and-economic-growth.

[6] California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Washington.

[7] Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, and Nebraska

[8] Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Michigan, and Pennsylvania

[9] Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Mississippi, and Ohio

[[10] Missouri, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Wisconsin

[11] Amuedo-Dorantes and Chad Sparber. 2012. In-State Tuition for Undocumented Immigrants and its Impact on College Enrollment, Tuition Costs, Student Financial Aid, and Indebtedness. IZA Institute of Labor Economics. Discussion Paper 6857.

[12] Dickson, Lisa, T.H. Gindling, and James Kitchin. 2017. The Education and Employment Effects of DACA, In-State Tuition and Financial Aid for Undocumented Immigrants. IZA Institute of Labor Economics. Discussion Paper 11109.

[13] Kerwin, Donald, José Pacas, and Robert Warren. 2021. Ready to Stay: A Comprehensive Analysis of the US Foreign-Born Populations Eligible for Special Legal Status Programs and for Legalization under Pending Bills. Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS) Report. New York, NY: CMS. https://cmsny.org/publications/ready-to-stay-report/.

[14] Dream Act of 2021, S. 264, 117th Cong. (2021-2022). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/264.

[15] Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, S. 747, 117th Cong. (2021-2022). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/747.

[16] Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, H.R. 1603, 117th Cong. (2021-2022).  https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1603?s=1&r=76.

[17] US Citizenship Act of 2021. H.R. 1177 and S. 348, 117th Cong. (2021-2022). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1177.

August 1, 2022