What Immigrants Mean to the U.S. Economy, in 5 Charts

With the immigration debate heating up, here is where immigrants live, what they do, and what they earn.

Migrants' rights activists hold signs, one reading in Spanish "Courage, migrants" outside the U.S. embassy on President Obama's inauguration day, in Mexico City, Jan. 21, 2013. (Eduardo Verdugo/AP)
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Migrants' rights activists hold signs, one reading in Spanish

The debate over immigration reform often centers on fairness—what a person should have to do to become a U.S. citizen and who, exactly, should go to the "back of the line." Lost in much of the discussion is the place that immigrants currently occupy in the U.S. economy.

Digging down into the data shows that this is a wildly diverse group; they are unevenly distributed geographically, and they boast a wide spectrum of educational attainment. And becoming a citizen can be very important to an immigrant's chances of providing for a family; citizenship often comes with a significant wage hike. Here are a few snapshots of immigrants in America: where they live, where they work, how educated they are, and how much they earn compared to native-born Americans.

[ECONOMISTS: Immigrants Actually Boost Wages]

Geographic diversity

Immigrants are a larger economic force in some parts of the country than others. While only 13 percent of all Americans are foreign-born, that share is more than 1 in 4 in California. Meanwhile, only around 1 percent of West Virginians were born outside the U.S. Below, a look at the states with the largest shares of immigrants.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

The share of unauthorized immigrants also roughly correlates to these totals. Of the nation's roughly 11.2 million illegal immigrants, 2.6 million live in California, and another 1.7 million live in Texas, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. If Congress should pass a reform package that gives these people a path to citizenship, it could mean many more legal workers in those states, potentially shifting the type of work that they do and the wages they receive.

Disparate Education Levels

Foreign-born Americans are less likely than the native-born population to have completed high school. Nearly 30 percent of foreign-born Americans have not completed high school, compared to less than 10 percent of the native-born population.

[NEWMAN: More Immigration Is Good for Business]

Still, at higher levels of education, the picture evens out. Nearly 20 percent of both native- and foreign-born Americans have bachelor's degrees, and nearly 11 percent of both groups have master's, professional, or doctorate degrees.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Lots of Construction Workers, Few Bankers

Compared to native workers, foreign-born workers are well-represented in construction, leisure and hospitality, and manufacturing, according to Census data. Meanwhile, foreign-born workers are less likely than native-born Americans to work in finance.

(Source: U.S. Census Bureau)

Labor Department data show a clearer picture of what jobs immigrants have within these industries. Foreign-born workers are more likely than native-born Americans to work in food preparation, building and grounds maintenance, and computer and math-related jobs. Meanwhile, native-born Americans are far more likely to work in management, sales, and business and financial operations than their foreign-born counterparts.

Higher Pay Comes with Citizenship

Immigrants tend to earn less than native-born Americans; immigrant households had a median income of around $44,400 in 2011, compared to around $50,800 for other Americans. However, that generalization fails to uncover a key divide: naturalized immigrants make far more money than non-citizens and also tend to earn more than native-born Americans: