Posts claiming immigrants displacing US-born workers are misleading

Social media posts say US economic figures show that employment gains are benefitting foreign-born people including "illegal aliens" to the detriment of native-born Americans. This is misleading; the analysis fails to account for changing demographics, including retiring baby boomers, economists say, and a majority of the foreign-born workers are US citizens or legal residents.

"And the number you've all been waiting for: Native-born workers: -663K Foreign-born workers (mostly illegal aliens): +414K," says a June 7, 2024 post on X by the finance blog Zerohedge, an account previously fact-checked by AFP and banned by Google's ad platform in 2020.

Former Fox News producer Kyle Becker made similar assumptions in an X post shared the same day, saying: "Where are Americans' jobs going? The Foreign Born. Illegal aliens literally 'took our jobs.'"

<span>Screenshot of X posts taken June 17, 2024</span>
Screenshot of X posts taken June 17, 2024

Data from the May 2024 federal jobs report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) underscore the labor market's resilience as policymakers seek to cool the economy gradually (archived here). The US added 272,000 jobs last month, up from a revised 165,000 in April (archived here).

The job gains and losses in May were accurately represented, but the report also showed an additional 263,000 foreign-born people in the labor force, while the number of native-born declined by 171,000. The unemployment rate held at similar levels for both groups this year, hovering between 3.4 and 4.8 percent, the Labor Department data showed.

Nonetheless, politicians and commentators said the figures highlight a failing of President Joe Biden, who has been struggling to convince voters of his handling of the economy (archived here), some building on conspiracy theories about the "great replacement" of white Americans. 

Former US president Donald Trump doubled down on this rhetoric, falsely claiming "virtually 100 percent of the new jobs under Biden have also gone to illegal aliens," during a June 9 campaign rally in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Economists told AFP the claims lack crucial context on US demographics, including the growing numbers of immigrant workers and retiring native-born Americans. Moreover, more than half of foreign-born workers are American citizens, despite the characterizations made by Trump and his supporters.


The figures reflect the retirement and aging of the native-born population, said Guy Berger, director of economic research at The Burning Glass Institute (archived here), a think tank focusing on the labor market.

"Over the past 12 months, the share of prime working age Americans who have a job has risen to 81.5 percent, the highest since at least 2007. This contradicts the message of scary headlines showing that recent employment gains are accruing to immigrants, not to native-born Americans," Berger says in a June 17 LinkedIn post (archived here).

When you isolate "prime-age workers," aged 25-54, employment growth was faster for native-born workers, and "there's no sign that employment is weakening in this category, no sign at all," he told AFP on June 17, 2024.

The shift in demographics means there are more foreign-born workers entering the "prime age" group while the number of native-born is declining, but both have high employment levels, according to data from Burning Glass in the graphs below.

<span>Screenshot of a graph created by Guy Berger, taken June 7, 2024</span>
Screenshot of a graph created by Guy Berger, taken June 7, 2024
<span>Screenshot of a graph created by Guy Berger, taken June 7, 2024</span><div><span>Natalie WADE</span></div>
Screenshot of a graph created by Guy Berger, taken June 7, 2024
Natalie WADE

This was echoed by former White House Council of Economic Advisers chief economist Ernie Tedeschi in a June 7, X post (archived here).

Heidi Shierholz, president of the Economic Policy Institute, agreed.

"What's going on is that you have US-born baby boomers retiring, and so they are exiting the labor force, and that's why you see that drop, not because there's a bunch of people that are having a job stolen by immigrants, which is what those tweets were suggesting," she told AFP on June 17.

"Hitting retirement age has nothing to do with economic prospects, nothing to do with the strength of the economy. It is just naturally declining because of this composition effect."

Shierholz said that over the last five years, native-born employment went up by 971,000 and foreign-born employment by 3.2 million. "So it's not like native-born workers are actually losing jobs overall, but they're definitely growing more slowly than the foreign-born population," she added.

Shierholz and Berger also noted that the month-to-month movement is not seasonally adjusted and may not be a reliable indicator of a trend. Overall unemployment rates are low by historical standards, both experts noted.

Undocumented vs. foreign-born

According to the Labor Department, foreign-born workers are individuals born abroad who did not receive US citizenship at birth, including those who have become naturalized citizens, immigrants and lawful residents who have a right to work (archived here).

The foreign-born group "is going to include a ton of citizens and permanent residents, people that lived here a long time," Berger pointed out.

In a thread on X, US Census Bureau economist John Voorheis argued (archived here) that the "citizen rate for the foreign-born employed population is actually about 53.7 percent, which would mean a full majority of working immigrants are American citizens."

Regardless, the Current Population Survey, conducted by the Census Bureau and BLS to collect this employment data, does not directly measure legal status.

"The story of whether the recent increase is documented versus undocumented -- let's say it this way -- this data alone cannot answer that," Berger said.

Economists also say growth in the labor force, including from immigrants, is beneficial to the overall economy.

Shierholz said: "They are not just workers, they're also consumers, and so they spend money on goods and services, and that generates more jobs."