Education for Adult English Language Learners in the United States: Trends, Research, and Promising Practices

Part II: The Foreign-Born Population in the United States

This section describes the foreign-born population in the United States: their characteristics, the states in which they reside, and different perspectives on their economic contributions to U.S. society. The foreign-born population consists of legal immigrants (including naturalized citizens), refugees and asylees, and undocumented immigrants. Demographic information about the U.S. foreign-born population is collected through the U.S. Census Bureau and related analyses, including the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, organizations such as the Migration Policy Institute, the Pew Hispanic Center, and the Asian American Justice Fund use data from the U.S. Census Bureau to study the demographic, educational, linguistic, occupational, and socioeconomic status of the foreign-born population. Nationwide surveys, such as the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003), provide information about the language proficiencies and educational achievement of foreign-born individuals.

Background on the Foreign-Born Population

Data on learners enrolled in adult English as a second language (ESL) classes or adult education classes are limited. However, data on the foreign-born population overall are documented in census reports. Recent statistics are available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s (2006) American Community Survey (ACS). These include data on the number and percentage of foreign-born individuals, their countries of origin, ages, educational attainment, English speaking ability and literacy, and employment status and income levels.

Number and Percentage

The United States has seen a steady increase in the foreign-born population since the 1970s. According to the ACS, there were 37.5 million foreign born individuals in the United States in 2006, representing 12.5% of the total U.S. population. In 2000, there were 28.4 million, or 10.4% of the population. Between 2002 and 2006, the level of immigration averaged 1.8 million per year.

Naturalized citizens and refugees are two subgroups of the foreign-born population. Of the 37.5 million foreign-born individuals in the United States in 2006, 15.7 million (almost 42%) were naturalized citizens (Terrazas, Batalova, & Fan, 2007). In 2007, 48,281 refugees arrived in the United States, with the majority coming from Burma (20%), Somalia (14%), Iran (11%), the former Soviet republics (9%), and Burundi (9%) (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.).

Countries of Origin

Hispanics and Asians are the two largest groups represented in the foreign-born population. In 2006, 47% of this population was of Hispanic origin; 31% of this population was born in Mexico. Projections for the size of the Hispanic population in the future range from 15.5% of the total U.S. population in 2010 to 24.4% in 2050 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). From 1990 to 2004, the U.S. Asian and Pacific islander population doubled in size; the Asian population rose from 7 million to 14 million, and the population of Pacific islanders rose from 500,000 to approximately 1 million (Asian American Justice Center and Asian Pacific American Legal Center, 2006).

Other highly represented groups include those from the Philippines (4.4%), China (4.1%), India (4.0%), Vietnam (3%), El Salvador (2.8%), Korea (2.7%), Cuba (2.5%), Canada (2.3%), and the United kingdom (1.8%; Terrazas, Batalova, & Fan, 2007).


Data from the 2006 ACS show that the majority of foreign-born individuals in the United States (71%) are between ages 25 and 64 years; 8.1% are age 0–17 years; 9.6% are age 18–24 years; 43.7% are age 25–44 years; 27.2% are age 45–64 years; and 11.5% are 65 years of age or older.

Educational Attainment

The educational backgrounds of foreign-born adults vary, but the majority (68%) have earned a high school diploma in either their native country or the United States. Of those age 25 years or older, 26.7% have a bachelor’s degree or higher (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006).

English Speaking Ability and Literacy

The English language proficiency of U.S. foreign-born residents also varies widely. Data from the 2006 ACS reveal the following:

  • 52.4% of the 37.2 million foreign-born persons age 5 years and older reported speaking English less than “very well” in 2006, compared with 51% of 30.7 million in 2000.
  • 84% reported speaking a language other than English at home.
  • 31.4% live in linguistically isolated households (i.e., one “in which no person14 years old and over speaks only English and no person 14 years old and over who speaks a language other than English speaks English ‘very well’”).

A recent report claims that 55% of immigrants eligible to naturalize, and 67% of immigrants soon to be eligible have limited English proficiency (Passel, 2007). Another report argues that 5.8 million legal permanent residents need English language instruction to pass the naturalization exam and be able to participate in civic life, 6.4 million unauthorized immigrants will require English language instruction to pass the naturalization exam and obtain legal permanent resident status, and 2.4 million immigrant youth age 17–24 years will need English instruction to begin postsecondary education without remediation (McHugh, Gelatt, & Fix, 2007).

Although many first-generation adult immigrants struggle to become proficient in English, English language proficiency appears to increase with each subsequent generation. For example, the Pew Hispanic Center conducted a study that surveyed 14,000 Latino adults on their ability to speak English (Hakimzadeh & Cohn, 2007). The study found that while only 23% of first-generation Latino immigrant adults reported speaking English very well, 88% of second-generation, U.S.-born Latino adults reported speaking English very well, and 94% of subsequent U.S.-born generations of Latino adults reported speaking English very well. The study found that the level of education, age of arrival in the United States, and number of years in the United States had an impact on Latino immigrants’ ability to speak English very well and to use it often.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) (National Center for Education Statistics, 2003) provided in-depth information about the different types of literacy abilities found in native- and foreign-born adults living in the United States (Kutner, Greenberg, Jin, Boyle, Hsu, & Dunleavy, 2007). The NAAL measures adults’ knowledge and skills in prose literacy (text-based), document literacy (noncontinuous texts), and quantitative literacy (computations). Participants’ abilities in each of these three literacy domains are described as below basic, basic, intermediate, or proficient. NAAL data disaggregated by native language and ethnicity show the following:

  • Approximately 11 million adults in the United States (5% of the total population) were estimated to be nonliterate in English, as defined by their inability to complete a minimum number of questions on the assessment.
  • Average prose and document literacy decreased as the age at which individuals learned English increased.
  • Of adults who learned English at age 16 years or older, 39% performed at below basic prose literacy, and 63% who performed at basic prose literacy had attended or were currently enrolled in adult ESL classes.
  • Of adults who learned English at age 16 years or older and who had never enrolled in an adult ESL class, 82% had below basic prose literacy, compared with 63% of adults who had attended such classes and 69% of adults who were currently enrolled.
  • Of adults who spoke only Spanish before starting formal schooling, 62% had below basic prose and quantitative literacy, and 49% had below basic document literacy.
  • Average prose and document literacy for adults of Mexican and Central or South American origin declined, except for those who were still in high school and those who had a college degree or higher.
  • Spanish-speaking adults with below basic prose literacy increased from 35% to 44%.
  • Prose, document, and quantitative literacy levels of Asian/Pacific islander adults did not change significantly.
  • The percentage of the U.S. adult population who spoke only Spanish before starting formal schooling increased from 5% to 8%. The percentage who spoke only English before starting school decreased from 86% to 81% (Kutner et al., 2007).

Employment and Income

Foreign-born adults play a significant role in the U.S. civilian labor force (defined as individuals age 16 years or older who are employed or seeking employment). In 2007, 24 million workers—15.7% of the U.S. workforce—were foreign-born individuals (U.S. Department of Labor, 2008). From 1990 to 2002, the percentage of foreign-born workers grew 76%, compared to a growth rate of 11% for native-born workers (Grieco, 2004).

Immigrants often earn lower wages than native-born workers. Although they represented only 12.4% of the total U.S. population, immigrants made up 21% of all low-wage workers in the United States in 2005 and 45% of all workers without a high school education (Capps, Fortuny, & Fix, 2007). In 2007, the median weekly earnings of foreign-born full-time wage and salary workers was $554, compared to $722 for native-born workers (U.S. Department of Labor, 2008).

A number of factors can affect the income levels of the foreign-born population. These include level of education, length of time in the United States, immigration status, and English language proficiency.


Foreign-born workers age 25 years and older with less than a high school education earned $405 per week in 2007, compared to $1,057 for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Immigrants with bachelors’ degrees or higher earn almost as much (98.3%) as native-born workers with equivalent levels of education (U.S. Department of Labor, 2008).

Length of Time in the United States

A study conducted in 1997 found that immigrants who have lived in the United States for more than 10 years earned about 10% less per household than native-born individuals (e.g., $45,400 versus $50,200) (Fix & Passel, 2001). Foreign-born workers with 10 or fewer years in the United States tended to have lower incomes than those who had lived in the United States longer.

Immigration status

A study conducted in 2001 found that among immigrant groups, undocumented immigrants showed the lowest annual household income level, reported at $32,200. Refugees earned more than undocumented immigrants, $34,000, and legal immigrants earned the most, $44,000 (Fix & Passel, 2001). A more recent study found that those students who enrolled in ESL classes, obtained a year of college credit, and received a credential went on to earn about $7,000 per year more than ESL students who did not continue their education after exiting ESL classes (Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, 2005a).

English Language Proficiency

Martinez & Wang (2005) reported a 46% wage differential between immigrants who spoke English and those who did not. Even after adjusting for education and work experience, those who spoke English earned 12% more than those who did not.

The 2000–2005 survey of the U.S. refugee population conducted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement found that refugees who indicated that they did not speak English were less likely to be employed (45%) than those who indicated they spoke English (63%). The survey also found that the average hourly wage of employed refugees who reported speaking English well or fluently at the time of the survey was $9.07; for refugees who did not speak English at all, it was $7.95 (U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2005).

A study of immigrants in Los Angeles and New York City conducted by the Urban Institute found similar results. Many of the adult immigrants studied did not speak English “well” or “at all” (51% in Los Angeles and 38% in New York). This group was poorer than immigrants who spoke English “well” or “very well.” in Los Angeles, 33% of the former group lived below the poverty rate compared with 13% who spoke English well. In New York, 34% of the immigrants who did not speak English well lived below the poverty rate compared with 14% who spoke English well (Capps et al., 2002).

Geographical Distribution

Traditionally, the majority of foreign-born individuals have settled in a few states, the top five in 2006 being California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Illinois, as shown in Table 1. In 2007, California, Texas, Minnesota, New York, and Florida were the top five states for initial refugee resettlement (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.). California leads the nation in the number of foreign-born residents, and Los Angeles has the greatest number of any city in the country: 36% of its 9.9 million residents and 46% of the workforce are foreign born, and approximately 2 million residents are considered limited English proficient (Fix, McHugh, Terrazas, & Laglagaron, 2008).

Table 1. Top Five U.S. States by Number of Foreign-Born Residents in 2006


Number of Foreign-Born Residents in 2006



New York








Source. Terrazas, Batalova, & Fan, 2007.

At the same time, as shown in Table 2, many other states have experienced recent growth in foreign-born populations. From 2000 to 2005, 14 states experienced an increase of 30% or more (Jensen, 2006; McHugh, Gellatt, & Fix, 2007). One reason for this trend is that immigrants are settling in states with employment opportunities in construction, industry, and tourism (Singer & Wilson, 2006).

Table 2. Top Five U.S. States by Increase in Foreign-Born Population Between 2000 and 2006


Percentage Increase in Foreign-Born Population From 2000 to 2006


53.1% (from 44,898 to 68,722)

South Carolina

51.8% (from 115,978 to 176,018)


50.3% (from 316,593 to 475,914)


48.9% (from 577,273 to 859,590)


48.7% (from 159,004 to 236,516)

Source. Terrazas, Batalova, & Fan, 2007.

Economic Contribution of Immigrants to U.S. Society

Immigrants accounted for 51% of U.S. labor force growth between 1996 and 2002, while they constituted just 14% of the total U.S. population (Orrenius, 2003). Although data are limited and localized, and various groups considering this topic have come to different conclusions, some studies indicate that immigrants have a positive effect on the economy of the United States (Waslin, 2008). For example, in Arizona in 2004, immigrant workers contributed an estimated $2.4 billion to the state tax revenue. After estimated immigrant-related fiscal costs of $1.4 billion (for education, healthcare, and law enforcement), the net 2004 fiscal impact of immigrants in Arizona was approximately $940 million (Gans, 2007). Another study found that from 2002 to 2004, Florida’s immigrant workers each contributed almost $1,500 more per year in federal, state, and local taxes than they received in benefits such as Social Security, supplementary income and assistance, food stamps, and Medicaid (Eisenhauer, Angee, Hernandez, & Zhang, 2007). More research is needed on this question to gain a better understanding of the roles of native- and foreign-born adults in the U.S. economy.


A complete picture of the nationalities, educational attainment, English language proficiency, and employment status of foreign-born individuals in the United States is helpful in understanding who they are and how their unique needs might best be served in adult education programs. These factors also influence their children’s socioeconomic status and education. Further collection and analysis of disaggregated data on the foreign born from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Census Bureau, labor and economic reports, and educational measurements, will continue to inform decisions and policies related to immigrant integration in the United States.

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