My Story

  • KeylaTorres_WrightAida Rodriguez

    Palm Beach State College
    Country of origin: Mexico

    Aida Rodriguez, a native of Mexico, received her…

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  • KeylaTorres_WrightKeyla Torres

    Wright College
    Country of origin: Honduras

    Keyla Torres, an immigrant from Honduras, started anew at Wright College in…
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  • KeylaTorres_WrightVitor Granja

    Westchester Community College
    Country of origin: Brazil

    When Vitor Granja first moved to this country…

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  • Fidel Gonzalez SaforaFidel Gonzalez Safora

    Westchester Community College
    Country of origin: Cuba

    “I’m very grateful for the…

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  • Giana SalomanGiana Saloman

    LaGuardia Community College
    Country of origin: Haiti

    Giana Saloman was born in Haiti.…

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  • Jibril Yahaya LuwaaJibril Yahaya Luwaa

    Westchester Community College
    Country of origin: Ghana

    Growing up in Ghana, I dreamed of…

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  • Satwinderjit KaurSatwinderjit Kaur

    Johnson County Community College
    Country of Origin: India

    "Watch your thoughts, they become words.…

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  • Cecilia G. CorralCecilia G. Corral

    South Texas College
    Country of origin: Mexico

    At first glance, 18 year old Cecilia…

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  • Fernando VillavicencioFernando Villavicencio

    Miami Dade College
    Country of Origin: Ecuador

    Fernando Villavicencio migrated three years ago from his native…

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  • Anne Sarie Yva CossogueAnne Sarie Yva Cossogue

    Miami Dade College
    Country of Origin: Haiti

    Anne Sarie Yva Cossogue migrated…

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Fast Facts

The U.S. Immigrant Population: Demographics, Education, Labor Force, and the Economy

Did you know that:

Community colleges enroll almost half of all U.S. undergraduates, or 6.5 million students, and one-quarter (24%) of these students come from an immigrant background.

Community colleges are among the largest providers of adult education ESL service in many states and communities.

ESL instruction for adults is the largest and fastest growing component of America’s adult education system—representing more than 40 percent of enrollments and more than 1.2 million students per year—and the fastest growing program of any kind at many community colleges.

To find out more about community college’s role in providing immigrant education programs and other fast facts concerning the immigrant population, click on any of the following categories:

U.S. Immigrants:

Educational attainment:

  • Many immigrants age 25 and older, who have arrived in the US within the last five years, fall into either end of the educational attainment spectrum: While 41% have a bachelor’s degree or higher, 23% don’t have a high school diploma from their home country. (Pew Research Institute, Today’s Newly Arrived Immigrants are the Best-Educated Ever, 2015)
  • Foreign-born young adults 19-24 years old represent 23% of US residents who haven’t earned a high school diploma or equivalent, while foreign-born adults age 25 and up comprise 37% of the US population without a high school diploma or equivalent. (Migration Policy Institute, Immigrants and WIOA Services Fact Sheet, 2015)
  • Nearly 30% of about 1,800 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients surveyed in 2015 completed a two-year or four-year college degree. Since DACA implementation in 2012, 30% of respondents started postsecondary education for the first time, while another 30% returned to school. 31% of survey respondents reported having increased access to scholarships and financial aid. (United We Dream, A Portrait of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Recipients: Challenges and Opportunities Three Years Later, 2015)
  • By June of 2015, more than 680,000 people had obtained Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status. (Migration Policy Institute, Immigrants and WIOA Services Fact Sheet, 2015)
  • By January 2015, at least 20 states had enacted laws or policies that allow DACA recipients to pay in-state tuition. (Migration Policy Institute, Lessons from the Local Level: DACA’s Implementation and Impact on Education and Training Success, January 2015)
  • As of 2006, more than half (53.4 percent) of the 6.1 million college-educated immigrants age 25 and older obtained their education prior to migration, so that the U.S. benefits from schooling received and paid for elsewhere. (Uneven Progress: The Employment Pathways of Skilled Immigrants in the United States, Migration Policy Institute, 2008)
  • About one in three immigrants is a person with either a U.S. or foreign college degree. (Migration Policy Institute’s Migration Information Source) 
  • While immigrant undergraduates complete college at the same rate as the overall student population, they are likely to earn certificates or associate’s degrees rather than bachelor’s degrees. Five years after entering college in 1995, 27% of all immigrant students and 32% of permanent residents had attained an associate’s degree or certificate, compared with 23% of all undergraduates. However, only 23% of all immigrant students and 19% of permanent residents had earned a bachelor’s degree, compared with 30% of all undergraduates. (1996-2001 Beginning Post-secondary Student Longitudinal Study, BPS, National Center for Education Statistics,2001, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007) 
  • In 2008, there were 31.9 million immigrants age 25 and older. Of those, 27.1% had a bachelor's degree or higher, while 32.5% lacked a high school diploma. Among the 168.2 million native-born adults age 25 and older, 27.8% had a bachelor's degree or higher, and only 11.7% did not have a high school diploma. (Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, Migration Policy Institute’s Migration Information Source)

 Naturalized citizens vs. non-citizens

  • Immigrants age 25 and older who are not U.S. citizens have lower levels of educational attainment than the American population as a whole. Almost two-thirds (63%) of these immigrants have no more than a high school education, compared with 46% of the overall U.S. population. However, naturalized citizens, are more likely than the overall U.S. population to have completed a bachelor’s degree or higher (32% vs. 27%) (U.S. Census Bureau 2005a, American Community Survey, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007) 
  • Among young people age 18-24, immigrants were only slightly less likely than their native-born peers to be enrolled in college (27% vs. 36%). However, 47% of naturalized citizens in this group were enrolled in college, compared to only 22% of non-citizens enrolled in college, “suggesting that citizenship plays a crucial, albeit not fully understood, role in providing access to higher education.” (U.S. Census Bureau 2005b, American Community Survey, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007) 

 Age

  • Immigrants who enter the United States after age 45 tend to have the lowest level of educational attainment of any immigrant group, while those who enter the country before age 13 have the highest level of educational attainment and compare favorably with native-born Americans. In the13-44 age group, those who arrive between the ages of 13 and 19 have the lowest rates of educational attainment, “suggesting that immigrating during the late teenage years places young people at a particular educational disadvantage.” (Educational Attainment: Analysis by Immigrant Generation, Institute for the Study of Labor, 2003, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007) 

Region of origin

  • When comparing immigrants by region of origin, immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean have the least education, with three-quarters (74%) never attending college, and almost half (44%) not graduating from high school. Immigrants from Africa and Asia are the best-educated immigrant groups, with 44% and 48% respectively holding a bachelor’s degrees or higher. (U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2005, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007) 

Community college enrollment

  • Community colleges enroll almost half of all U.S. undergraduates, or 6.5 million students. One-quarter (24%) of these students come from an immigrant background. (Profile of undergraduates in U.S. postsecondary education institutions 2003-04 with a special analysis of community college students, National Center for Education Statistics, 2006, as cited in The Vital Role of Community Colleges in the Education and Integration of Immigrants, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees,2008)
  • Immigrant students have higher unmet financial need than the average undergraduate and are more likely to enroll in community colleges or private profit institutions. Immigrants were 14% more likely than the general undergraduate population to be enrolled in public two-year institutions and private for-profit institutions. More than half (55%) of all immigrant undergraduates and 59% of legal permanent residents were enrolled in these types of institutions in 2003-04. (2003-04 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, NPSAS, National Center for Education Statistics, 2004, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007) 
  • Immigrant students who entered college as freshman in 1995 were somewhat more likely than the overall undergraduate population to have transferred from a two-year college or less school to a four-year school by 2001. (1996-2001 Beginning Post-secondary Student Longitudinal Study, BPS, National Center for Education Statistics,2001, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007)

English as a Second Language (ESL)

The following information on ESL programs and students at community colleges is drawn from a two-year study, Passing the Torch: Strategies for Innovation in Community College ESL by Forrest P. Chisman and JoAnn Crandall (Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, 2007). The authors note that the study draws upon their extensive knowledge of and exposure to dozens of community colleges and ESL programs through other studies, but is based primarily on an in-depth examination of the innovative instructional and professional development practices of adult ESL programs at five community colleges, identified by ESL experts and their peers as exemplary in their provision of adult ESL service. The five colleges are: Bunker Hill Community College, Charlestown, MA; The City College of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA; The College of Lake County, Grayslake, IL, Seminole Community College, Sanford, FL; and Yakima Valley Community College, Yakima, WA.

  • ESL instruction for adults is the largest and fastest growing component of America’s adult education system—representing more than 40 percent of enrollments and more than 1.2 million students per year—and the fastest growing program of any kind at many community colleges. (Report to Congress on State Performance, Adult Education and Family Literacy ACT FY 2003-2004, U.S. Department of Education, 2006, as cited in Passing the Torch: Strategies for Innovation in Community College ESL, Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, 2007)
  • Virtually all ESL students are immigrants. Census data and projections indicate that half the growth of the American workforce in the 1990s was due to immigration—and most of our future workforce growth will come from this source, primarily from legal immigration. A large percent of adult immigrants (estimated at 15 million or more) have very limited English proficiency, and many also have low levels of prior education in their native countries. Most ESL students at the lower levels of English proficiency have less than a high school diploma.
  • The educational levels of immigrants are at the extremes: while the immigrant population of the U.S. contains a far higher percentage of adults with very low educational levels than does the native born population, it also contains a slightly greater percentage with a bachelor’s degree or higher. At both ends, immigrants turn to ESL programs. (Report to Congress on State Performance, Adult Education and Family Literacy ACT FY 2003-2004, U.S. Department of Education, 2006, as cited in Passing the Torch: Strategies for Innovation in Community College ESL, Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, 2007)
  • Community colleges are among the largest providers of adult education ESL service in many states and communities. At community colleges in New York City, San Francisco, and Miami, ESL is both the single largest program and the fastest growing program.
  • Community colleges provide both non-credit ESL, offered cost free to immigrants with low levels of English language ability and credit ESL, which requires tuition and offered to students with greater English proficiency. Non-credit students constitute the majority of English language learners at most colleges.
  • VESL (Vocational ESL) programs are among the most effective and fastest growing forms of non-credit ESL instruction. That is because they provide a “shortcut” to vocational certification in areas of employment for which there is a significant workforce demand – such as aspects of the allied health field, and various areas of construction, maintenance, and hospitality. They offer a shortcut in that they enroll students who are at the Intermediate levels of ESL and often have no more than a sixth grade education.
  • The federal government’s National Reporting System for adult education (NRS) classifies language proficiency by six levels. According to the NRS, the overwhelming majority of ESL students enter programs at the two lowest levels, and NRS reports that only about 36% of ESL students advance one level per year.  
  • While ESL programs make a major contribution to improving the English abilities of many immigrants, only a small percentage of ESL students are enrolled in programs for as long as four semesters (the equivalent of two years or less) – either consecutively or at any time. As a result, few ESL students experience significant learning gains from adult education ESL programs. Moreover, only about 10 percent of non-credit ESL students make transitions to credit ESL, and an even smaller percentage make transitions to college academic or vocational programs. (Passing the Torch: Strategies for Innovation in Community College ESL, Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, 2007; Adult ESL and the Community College, Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, 2004)
  • However, the learning gains and transition rates of adult ESL students at the five community colleges profiled in Passing the Torch: Strategies for Innovation in Community College ESL have developed a variety of innovative strategies for improving ESL service and exceed national norms and norms for their states, according to the authors’ review of dozens of community colleges and ESL programs through other studies and primarily an in-depth examination of the five selected colleges: Bunker Hill Community College, The City College of San Francisco, The College of Lake County, Seminole Community College, and Yakima Valley Community College.

Work and family responsibilities:

  • Many immigrant college students are non-traditional students. More than half of immigrant college students are age 24 or older, one-third have dependents, and almost three-quarters work full- or part-time while attending school. (National Center on Educational Statistics, 2004, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream 2007)
  • Immigrant college students in New York City, while highly motivated academically, spent as much as 15 hours more each week on family responsibilities than their native-born peers. This pattern held true regardless of region of origin or socioeconomic status. (“Family Interdependence and Academic Adjustment in College Youth from Immigrant and U.S.-Born Families,” in Child Development 75 (3), as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Increasing Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007)
  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Latino young adults ages 16 to 25 who cut their education short during or right after high school say they did so because they had to support their family. (Latinos and Education: Explaining the Attainment Gap, Pew Hispanic Center, 2009) 
  • The foreign born make up 35% of all Latino youths, and they are much more likely than native-born Latino youths to be supporting or helping to support a family, either in the U.S. or in their native country. Nearly, two-thirds (64%) of all immigrant Hispanics ages 18 to 25 say they send remittances to family members in their country of origin, compared with just 21% of their U.S. born counterparts. (Latinos and Education: Explaining the Attainment Gap, Pew Hispanic Center, 2009; Hispanics and the Economic Downturn: Housing Woes and Remittance Cuts, Pew Hispanic Center, 2009) 

Educational aspirations 

  • Nearly nine in ten (89%) Latino young adults ages 16 to 25 year say that a college education is important for success in life, yet only about half that number (48%) say that they themselves plan to get a college degree. (Latinos and Education: Explaining the Attainment Gap, Pew Hispanic Center, 2009) 
  • About half (48%) of Hispanic young adults ages 18 to 25 expects to get a college degree or more, compared with 60% of the U.S. general population of that age group. In addition to this gap in educational aspirations, there is also a second and even bigger gap between young Latinos who are immigrants and those who are native born. Less than one-in-three (29%) immigrant Latinos ages 18 to 25 say they plan to get a bachelor’s degree or more, which is half the share (60%) of native-born young Latinos who say the same.  (Latinos and Education: Explaining the Attainment Gap, Pew Hispanic Center, 2009; How Young People View Their Lies, Futures and Politics: A Portrait of Generation Next, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 2007) 

Immigrant parents

  • In New York City, where 53 percent of children enrolled in public schools come from families in which English is not the primary language—41 percent of parents with limited English reported having to use the child or another student as translator when speaking to school staff. In addition, while 43 percent of these parents participated in school activities, 76 percent said they would participate if language translation services were available (Denied at the Door: Language Barriers Block Immigrant Parents from School Involvement, New York Immigration Coalition and Advocates for Children of New York 2004, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007)
  • There are approximately 38 million foreign-born adults (age 16 and older) living in the United States, and they represent 15% of the total population. (Migration Policy Institute, Immigrants and WIOA Services Fact Sheet, 2015)
  • As of 2015, one out of every four Americans is an immigrant or has an immigrant parent, but by 2065, that number will rise to one in three.  (Pew Research Institute, Future Immigration Will Change the Face of America by 2065, 2015)
  • Foreign-born population growth is slowing.  Projections show a 9% immigrant population growth from 2055 to 2065.  From 2005 to 2015, there was a 17% increase.  For thirty years prior to that, the immigrant population grew by over 40% each decade.  (Pew Research Institute, Future Immigration Will Change the Face of America by 2065, 2015)
  • Of the 41.3 million immigrants in the U.S. in 2013, 42% are naturalized citizens, another 24% are unauthorized, while the remaining 34% have another type of immigration status, such as a student visa, employment-based visa, refugee status, or lawful permanent residence. About 50% of immigrants have limited English Proficiency. (National Skills Coalition and Workforce Data Quality Campaign, Workforce Program Data & Immigrants FAQs, 2016)
  • Of the 13.3 million lawful permanent residents living in the US today, 8.8 are eligible to apply for citizenship.  (The White House, Fact Sheet: “Stand Stronger” Citizenship Awareness Campaign, 2016)
  • In 2008, 47% of the 38 million foreign-born population reported Hispanic or Latino origins; while of the 47 million who identified as having Hispanic or Latino ancestry, nearly two-thirds (62%) were native-born U.S. citizens. The remaining 38% of Hispanics were immigrants. (Migration Policy Institute, Migration Information Source)

Labor force characteristics

  • While immigrants make up 13% of the overall immigrant population (41.3 million), immigrant workers comprise 17% of the American workforce. (National Skills Coalition and Workforce Data Quality Campaign, Workforce Program Data & Immigrants FAQs, 2016)
  • About 13.7 million LEP (Limited English Proficient) individuals participate annually in four federal workforce programs programs: Dept. of Labor’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Title I, Dept. of Education’s WIOA title II, Dept. of Education’s Career and Technical Education, and Dept. of Health and Human Services’ Refugee Matching Grant Program (National Skills Coalition and Workforce Data Quality Campaign, Workforce Program Data & Immigrants FAQs, 2016)
  • Nearly 81% of about 1,800 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients surveyed in 2015 were employed, and 80% reported that they’re more likely to reach career goals since DACA’s implementation. 76% of respondents had obtained a new job since DACA’s enactment, and 52% had secured a higher-paying job since then. (United We Dream, A Portrait of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Recipients: Challenges and Opportunities Three Years Later, 2015)
  • In 2007, 15 percent of all college graduates in the U.S. labor force were immigrants. Of the 41.8 million college educated in the labor force age 25 and older, 15.4% or 6.5 million were immigrants. (US Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey, Migration Policy Institute’s Migration Information Source)
  • In 2007, one in four of the 6.5 million college-educated immigrants in the U.S. labor force was limited English proficient (LEP), reporting that they speak English less than “very well.” (U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 American Community Survey, Migration Policy Institute’s Migration Information Source).

Labor force growth—past and projected

  • Between 1970 and 2008, the percentage of foreign-born workers in the U.S. civilian labor force nearly tripled, from 5.3% to 15.7%. Over the same period, the percent of foreign born in the total population grew from 4.8% to 12.5%. (U.S. Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey, Migration Policy Institute’s Migration Information Source)
  • Immigrants constituted virtually half of the net increase in the size of the American workforce in the 1990s, and they are expected to constitute most of the net growth in the next few decades. (Background Briefing Prepared for Taskforce on Immigration and America’s Future, Pew Hispanic Center, 2005; 2004 Census 2004 Current Population Survey data, as cited in Passing the Torch: Strategies for Innovation in Community College ESL, Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, 2007)
  • During the next decade, one out of every four new workers in the United States will be an immigrant from Latin America. (Calculated from U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates, from Building Tomorrow’s Workforce Fact Sheet, Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, 2007)

Occupational categories

  • Of the 23.1 million civilian employed foreign born age 16 and older in 2008, 28.1% worked in management, professional, and related occupations; 23.4% worked in service occupations; 18.0% worked in sales and office occupations; 1.9% worked in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations; and 12.5% worked in construction, extraction, and maintenance occupations. (U.S. Census Bureau's 2008 American Community Survey, Migration Policy Institute’s Migration Information Source)
  • While immigrants accounted for 15 percent of the entire US college-educated labor force in 2007, their numbers were much higher among workers in certain occupations. Immigrants represented nearly 27 percent of physicians, more than 34 percent of computer software engineers, and over 42 percent of medical scientists. (U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey, Migration Policy Institute’s Migration Information Source)

Underutilization of skills in the U.S. labor market

Research from the Migration Policy Institute documents the “brain waste”—unrealized returns not only to immigrants and their families but to the nation as a whole—when the skills and talents of college-educated immigrants are underutilized in the U.S. labor market. The following data points, from MPI’s 2008 report Uneven Progress: The Employment Pathways of Skilled Immigrants in the United States by Jeanne Batalova and Michael Fix, with Peter A. Creticos, illustrate that highly skilled immigrants’ occupational experiences in this country vary, depending on English language ability, place of education, time spent in the United States, and immigrants’ country of origin:

  • More than 1.3 million highly skilled immigrants are unemployed or working in unskilled jobs such as dishwashers, security guards, and taxi drivers—representing one of every five highly skilled immigrants in the U.S. labor force.
  • Highly skilled immigrants (defined as immigrant adults with at least a bachelor’s degree) who were limited English proficient were twice as likely to work in unskilled jobs in 2005-06 than those who were proficient.
  • Legal permanent residents with U.S. college degrees were three times more likely to work in high-skilled jobs than those with a foreign degree.
  • Longer residence in the United States was associated with improved labor market outcomes for all immigrant groups. In nearly all instances, long-term immigrants were less likely to be in low-skilled jobs than their recently arrived counterparts. Nevertheless, about 35 percent of Latin Americans who had been in the United States for 11 or more years were still working in unskilled jobs.
  • Highly skilled European and Asian immigrants’ rates of underutilization were about the same as those of natives. However, highly skilled Latin American and African immigrants fared worse. About 44% of recent immigrants from Latin America and about a third (33%) of African foreign-educated immigrants were working in unskilled jobs in 2005-06. In addition, African-born immigrants had the highest unemployment rates of all foreign-born groups.

Immigrant entrepreneurs

  • Immigrant entrepreneurs founded nearly 20% of all Fortune 500 companies. Together, those companies employ 3.7 million workers and have generated $1.7 trillion in annual revenue. (Immigrant Learning Center, Public Education Institute, Immigrant Entrepreneurs: Creating Jobs and Strengthening the Economy, 2012)
  • In one-quarter (25.3%) of technology and engineering companies started in the U.S. from 1995 to 2005, at least one key founder was foreign-born. Nationwide, these immigrant-founded companies produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers in 2005. (America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Duke University and University of California, 2007)
  • Immigrant entrepreneurs tend to move to cosmopolitan technology centers. The regions with the largest immigrant population also tend to have the greatest number of technology startups. On average, 31% of the engineering and technology companies founded from 1995 to 2005 in the 11 technology centers that were surveyed had an immigrant as a key founder. This compares to the national average of 25.3%. (Education, Entrepreneurship, and Immigration: America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part II, Duke University, University of California, Kauffman Foundation, 2007) 
  • Technology centers with a greater concentration of immigrant entrepreneurs in their state averages: Silicon Valley (52.4%), New York City (43.8%), and Chicago (35.8%). (Education, Entrepreneurship, and Immigration: America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part II, Duke University, University of California, Kauffman Foundation, 2007) 
  • More than half of the foreign-born founders of U.S. technology and engineering companies came to the United States to study, with only 1.6% entering the country with the sole purpose of entrepreneurship. They typically founded companies after working and living in the United States for an average of 13 years. (Education, Entrepreneurship, and Immigration: America’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs, Part II, Duke University, University of California, Kauffman Foundation, 2007)
  • In New York City, almost half of all self-employed workers are immigrants, although immigrants make up just over a third of the city’s population. In Los Angeles, 22 of the fastest growing companies in 2005 were owned by immigrants. (A World of Opportunity, Center for an Urban Future, 2007, as cited in Opening the Door to the American Dream: Higher Education Access and Success for Immigrants, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 2007)