A Demographic Profile of Undocumented Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands

Evin Millet
Center for Migration Studies

Credit: Dragon Pan/Unsplash.com

A Demographic Profile of Undocumented Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands

CMS provides estimates and characteristics of populations who would be eligible for general and population-specific legalization programs and for special legal status programs.[1] According to CMS estimates, there are 1,734,600 undocumented immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands, comprising 17 percent of the total undocumented population living in United States. Immigrants coming from India (35 percent) and China (20 percent) account for more than half of this population, followed by the Philippines (10 percent), South Korea (8 percent), Vietnam (6 percent), Pakistan (3 percent), Nepal (2 percent), Thailand (2 percent), Afghanistan (2 percent), and Bangladesh (1 percent).  

According to CMS estimates, about 65 percent of this population has been living in the United States for less than 10 years. Half live in four states, with the largest population residing in California (26 percent), followed by Texas (10 percent), New York (8 percent), and New Jersey (6 percent). Figure 1 depicts the total undocumented population who immigrated from Asia and the Pacific Islands by year of arrival. The estimated number of immigrants who entered the United States was 186,200 in 2015 and decreased to 68,500 in 2019. More than a third of the total undocumented Asian and Pacific Islander population migrated to the United States between 2012 and 2015.   

Figure 1. Total Undocumented Population from Asia and the Pacific Islands, by Year of Arrival

The vast majority of undocumented Asian and Pacific Islanders are of prime working age and may offer a large amount of  human capital to US labor markets. About 90 percent of the population is of working age (between 16 and 64) with 70 percent being of prime working age (25 to 54 years old). Nearly 30 percent are of young working age (25 to 34) with the opportunity to grow and invest in the United States over the course of their careers. The age distribution shows the estimated number of school-aged children (age 5 to 18) is approximately 12 percent, and the shares of those under the age of five and above 65 years are only 1.5 percent and 0.6 percent, respectively (Table 1). 

Table 1. Age Distribution of Undocumented Immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands

Overall, undocumented Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States are highly educated, which indicates a large share of this group are potentially high-skilled workers. Only 11 percent of undocumented Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States have less than a high school education, 15 percent have a high school education, and approximately 74 percent have some college education, a college degree, or higher education (Figure 2). 

Figure 2. Educational Attainment of Undocumented Asians and Pacific Islanders (Age 18 and Over)

The average education level of undocumented immigrants varies by country of origin. Figure 3 shows the education levels of undocumented immigrants from the top 10 countries of origin with the largest undocumented Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant populations in the United States. More than half the undocumented immigrant population has some college education, a college degree, or higher education in almost all of these top sending countries, with the exception of Afghanistan, Nepal, and Vietnam. Undocumented immigrants from India, South Korea, and the Philippines have relatively higher levels of education than other sending countries in Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Figure 3. Educational Attainment of Undocumented Asians and Pacific Islanders, by Country of Origin (Age 18 and Over)

These high education levels are reflected in the jobs in which a large share of undocumented Asian and Pacific Islanders are employed. More than half the undocumented Asian and Pacific Islander immigrant population is employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations, which are potentially high-skilled and high-paid occupations (Figure 4). 

Figure 4. Occupational Composition of Undocumented Population from Asia and the Pacific Islands (Ages 16 and Over)

Immigrants from India, China, and South Korea are especially likely to be employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations. On the other hand, immigrants from Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines are more likely to be employed in service occupations. The majority of undocumented Afghan immigrants work in production, transportation, and material moving occupations. A very small share of the undocumented Asian and Pacific Islander population is employed in natural resources, construction, and maintenance fields. 

Figure 5. Occupational Composition of Undocumented Population from Asia and the Pacific Islands by Country of Origin (Ages 16 and Over)

The CMS estimates of the numbers and characteristics of undocumented immigrants coming from Asia and the Pacific Islands that could be eligible for permanent residence under pending bills and special legal status programs are presented in Table 2. The American Dream and Promise Act of 2021 (ADPA) provides conditional permanent resident status for immigrants who entered the United States as a minor; removal of the conditions on permanent resident status for persons who meet certain requirements specified in the bill, such as completing certain programs at an educational institution, serving in the military, or being employed; and adjustment to lawful permanent resident (LPR) status for immigrants eligible for temporary protected status (TPS) and deferred enforced departure (DED).[2] All of the undocumented immigrants who could be eligible for conditional permanent residence and removal of conditions on permanent residence have completed high school, and at least 72 percent have some college, B.A. or higher education. CMS findings show 93 percent speak English well, very well, or only English (Table 2). Even though undocumented immigrants who could be covered by ADPA do not seem to be long term residents, their high levels of English proficiency and education suggest their integration into social life and the labor market would be smooth if given the opportunity to acquire legal status.  

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 age on the initial date of US entry, have been continuously physically present in the United States for four years preceding the bill’s enactment, and have fulfilled specified educational and other requirements specified in the bill.[3] The population who are eligible for conditional permanent residence under the Dream Act of 2021 appear to be short-term residents with high levels of English proficiency. Even though high school completion among this group is high, CMS findings indicate a drop in higher education levels. Legal status would offer this group a more secure future, help them to continue their education in the United States and contribute to the country they now call home.

The Citizenship for Essential Workers Act provides lawful permanent resident status to undocumented immigrants 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 were employed as essential workers and died from COVID-19.[4] The bill would provide 875,700 undocumented immigrants from Asia and the Pacific Islands and their surviving family members with the opportunity for legal status and a path to citizenship to recognize the sacrifice these essential workers made during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to CMS estimates, this group is also comprised of mostly short-term residents with high levels of English proficiency and educational attainment. 

An estimated 11,100 undocumented immigrants coming from Asia and the Pacific Islands would be eligible for status legalization 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.[5] This group is on average less educated and has a lower English proficiency compared to those eligible for legalization under other pending bills. Many immigrants in this group arrived in the United States recently, with only 30 percent having lived in the United States for 15 years or more. Therefore, this group may need more support accessing services and applying for permanent residency. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has started to fade, its effects on the food chain and labor shortages are just starting to hit the agricultural sector globally. It is critical to provide legal status to undocumented immigrants in the agricultural sector to improve their work conditions, provide job security, and offer more stable living conditions as they make essential contributions to the food chain and US economy.  

CMS estimates indicate all undocumented immigrants coming from Asia and the Pacific Islands would be prima facie eligible for a legalization program if Congress passes the US Citizenship Act of 2021, which would provide lawful prospective immigrant (LPI) status to undocumented immigrants who were physically present in the United States on or before January 1, 2021.[6] After five years under the LPI status, eligible noncitizens could apply for permanent resident status. The bill also provides permanent resident status to eligible noncitizens who entered the United States as a minor, were eligible for TPS or DED, or worked a certain amount of agricultural labor in the five years prior to applying. Similar to the other groups, eligible undocumented immigrants who are DACA recipients or came to the United States as children and are granted TPS or DED seem to be short-term residents with high levels of English proficiency and education. 

The enactment of pending bills would provide legal status and a path to citizenship to many undocumented immigrants coming from Asia and the Pacific Islands currently living and working in the United States. Overall, this population appears to be short-term residents, highly educated, and proficient in English. Furthermore, CMS findings indicate they are highly engaged in the labor market in a variety of different industries, from occupations in management, business, and science to the agriculture sector, as well as essential labor and services. In fact, 88 percent live above the poverty level. Thus, legalization could not only provide increased job security for these immigrants, but also increase tax revenue, and help labor shortages for local economies. Congress should pass legislation that would legalize the overwhelming majority of US undocumented residents. A general legalization would achieve this goal and yield the most benefits for the legalized population, their family members, and US communities.

Table 2: Estimates of the Number of the Population (from Asia and the Pacific Islands) Affected by Legislative / Administrative Programs: Estimates Derived from 2019 ACS Data


[1] CMS estimates are based on 2019 American Community Survey Microdata.  For more information, see Kerwin, Donald, José Pacas, and Robert Warren. 2022. “Ready to Stay: A Comprehensive Analysis of the US Foreign-Born Populations Eligible for Special Legal Status Programs and for Legalization under Pending Bills.” Journal on Migration and Human Security 10(1): 37-76. https://doi.org/10.1177/23315024211065016.

[2] H.R.6 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): American Dream and Promise Act of 2021. (2021, June 15). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/6.

[3] S.264 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Dream Act of 2021. (2021, February 4). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/senate-bill/264.

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

[5] H.R.1603 – 117th Congress (2021-2022): Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021. (2021, March 22). https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/1603.

[6] 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.

June 13, 2022