Construction Chart Book

Chart Book (6th edition): Labor Force Characteristics – Foreign-born Workers in Construction and Other Industries

by | Mar 14, 2018

15. Foreign-born Workers in Construction and Other Industries

In 2015, there were 25.7 million foreign-born (see Glossary) workers in the U.S., making up 17.1% of the U.S. workforce.1 Among the major industrial sectors, the construction industry employed the highest percentage of foreign-born workers outside of agriculture. About 2.4 million construction workers, nearly a quarter (24.7%) of the industry workforce, were born in foreign countries (chart 15a).

The majority (84.3%) of foreign-born workers in construction were born in Latin American countries (chart 15b) in which 53.1% were born in Mexico, 6.6% in El Salvador, 5.4% in Guatemala, 4.7% in Honduras, 2.4% in Cuba, 2.1% in Ecuador, and a small percentage in other countries in that area. Workers who identify their origin as Latin American are categorized as Hispanic (see Glossary) under ethnicity. Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in the U.S. (see pages 16 and 17). Europeans made up 7.3% of foreign-born workers in construction, and 6.4% came from Asia (chart 15b). About 74% of foreign-born construction workers reported they were not U.S. citizens when the survey was conducted.

In 2015, nearly 30% of construction workers spoke a language other than English at home (chart 15c). Among foreign-born construction workers, about 86% reported they spoke Spanish at home. Other languages spoken at home among foreign-born construction workers included Portuguese (1.8%), Polish (1.5%), and Russian (1.1%). In fact, only less than 9% of foreign-born construction workers spoke English at home. Overall, more than 33 million workers in the U.S. spoke languages other than English at home in 2015.

The foreign-born population grew rapidly through the late 1990s and early 2000s, but slowed down after the Great Recession (see Glossary) started in December 2007. More than half (51.3%) of immigrant construction workers in 2015 reported entering the U.S. between 1995 and 2007 (chart 15d). Following the economic slump that started in 2007, fewer foreign-born workers were employed in the construction industry. Only 6% of foreign-born construction workers currently in the U.S. reported they arrived during the period of 2008 and 2010, whereas 10% entered between 2005 and 2007.

The aforementioned statistics are from the American Community Survey (ACS), the largest household survey in the nation, with an annual sample size of about three million households. The ACS is a Census Bureau survey designed to gather accurate and timely demographic information such as age, gender, race, and ethnicity, as well as socioeconomic indicators, including education, residence, birthplace, language spoken at home, employment, and income on an annual basis for both large and small geographic areas within the U.S. However, the ACS does not provide information on undocumented workers.

Although there is no universally accepted method for estimating the number of unauthorized (undocumented) immigrant workers (see Glossary), the Pew Research Center (PRC) reported that about eight million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. were working or looking for work in 2014, making up 5% of the civilian labor force (see Glossary).2 The unauthorized immigrant workforce was slightly smaller in 2014 than in 2007, but has been stable since 2009. This PRC estimate was consistent with the most recent estimates by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.3

Despite the overall declining trend of unauthorized immigrant workers, the number of those workers in the construction industry remains sizable. Compared with the 5% portion of the overall workforce, about 13% of construction workers were unauthorized immigrants.2 The percentage of undocumented workers may be even higher among Hispanic migrant workers (see Glossary). Estimates using data from the Mexican Migration Project (MMP), a collaborative research project between Princeton University and the University of Guadalajara,4 indicate that nearly 75% of workers migrating from Mexico to the U.S. were undocumented or had false documentation on their first trip.5


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Civilian labor force (see page 10).

Foreign-bornrefers to individuals who reside in the U.S., but were born outside the country or one of its outlying areas and to parents who were not U.S. citizens, including legally admitted immigrants, refugees, temporary residents such as students and temporary workers, and unauthorized (or undocumented) immigrants. The data do not separately identify the number of persons in each of these categories.

Great Recession began in December 2007 and lasted until June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research’s Business Cycle Dating Committee, which defines national recessions.

Hispanicrefers to any individual whose origin is Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American, Chicano, or other Latin American. Hispanics can be any race (see racial minorities in Glossary and page 19). The term Latino is used in place of Hispanic in many publications. However, to maintain consistency, Hispanic is used throughout this chart book, as it is used by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Immigrant workersworkers who enter the U.S. and settle down in the country.

Migrant workersworkers who enter the U.S, and may leave the country.

Unauthorized immigrants are all foreign-born non-citizens residing in the country who are not “lawful immigrants.” This definition reflects standard and customary usage by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and academic researchers. The vast majority of unauthorized immigrants entered the country without valid documents or arrived with valid visas but stayed past their visa expiration date or otherwise violated the terms of their admission.

1. All numbers cited in the text, except where noted, were from the 2015 American Community Survey. Calculations by the CPWR Data Center.

2. Passel JS, Cohn D. 2016. Size of U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Workforce Stable After the Great Recession. Pew Research Center. (Accessed November 2016).

3. Baker B, Rytina N. 2013. Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2012. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Office of Immigration Statistics.  (Accessed November 2016).

4. Princeton University, Office of Population Research. 2016. What is the MMP? (Accessed November 2016).

5. Mexican Migration Project (MMP). 2016. Calculations by the CPWR Data Center.



Chart 15b – “Other” world areas include North America, Africa, and Oceania (islands in the Pacific Ocean and its vicinity). Total may not add to 100% due to rounding.


All charts – U.S. Census Bureau. 2015 American Community Survey. Calculations by the CPWR Data Center.