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News Release 97-055

Immigrant Study Provides New Insights

September 15, 1997

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

Legal immigrants are more educated as a group than native-born U.S citizens, according to a just-released survey of new immigrants.

This news is among many valuable findings about an increasingly important group in American society. The findings come from a new comprehensive survey funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development with support from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

"In perhaps no other area of public policy is there such a large gap between information needs and existing data," says Mark R. Rosenzweig, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania. He and fellow researchers at Penn, New York University and Rand Corp. have set out to close the fact gap with a pilot study that gathers hard data on an elusive subject.

Among the study's preliminary findings:

  • Legal immigrants are better schooled, on average, than the native-born U.S. population. Median years of schooling completed among those aged 25 and up is 13 years, a full year higher than among the native-born. On the other hand, more than twice as many legal immigrants (19.5 percent) as native-born U.S. residents have completed fewer than nine years of schooling.

  • New legal immigrants are considerably better schooled than indicated by the U.S. Census, which does not distinguish between legal immigrants and other foreign-born, such as illegal migrants. This is especially true for immigrants born in Mexico--the largest source of legal and illegal immigrants to the U.S. The researchers believe that the proportion of college graduates among the Mexico-born legal immigrants is more than twice the 1990 Census figure.

  • Initial earnings of new legal immigrant men are lower on average than earnings of all U.S. native-born men; among women, however, the initial earnings of new immigrants are higher than those of the native-born.

  • New male and female immigrants initially experience a substantial economic gain on average, compared to earnings in their last job abroad. However, a quarter of this group actually saw an initial drop in earnings.

  • The immigrants' gain in annual earnings in their new country is highest (over $27,000) among those admitted to fill skilled jobs. However, there is also a substantial economic gain to marrying a U.S. citizen: in the case of men, $9,140 annually.

  • The major mechanism by which illegals acquire an immigrant visa is marriage to a U.S. citizen: almost 40 percent of formerly illegal immigrants in the sample were admitted to permanent residence status as spouses of U.S. citizens; 26 percent of immigrants who entered the U.S. with proper documentation did so through marriage.

Along with Rosenzweig, the research team for the New Immigrant Survey Pilot Study: Preliminary Results are: Guillermina Jasso, New York University; Douglas Massey, University of Pennsylvania; and James P. Smith, Rand Corp. The researchers intend to continue interviewing immigrants, analyzing data and publishing their findings over the next few years.


Media Contacts
George Chartier, NSF, (703) 292-8070, email:

Program Contacts
Mark C. Regets, NSF, (703) 292-8774, email:

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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