The Earnings of Undocumented Immigrants
Over 11 million undocumented persons reside in the United States, and there has been a heated debate over the impact of legislative or executive efforts to regularize the status of this population. This paper examines the determinants of earnings for undocumented workers. Using newly developed methods that impute undocumented status for foreign-born persons sampled in microdata surveys, the study documents a number of findings. First, the age-earnings profile of undocumented workers lies far below that of legal immigrants and of native workers, and is almost perfectly flat during the prime working years. Second, the unadjusted gap in the log hourly wage between undocumented workers and natives is very large (around 40 percent), but half of this gap disappears once the calculation adjusts for differences in observable socioeconomic characteristics, particularly educational attainment. Finally, the adjusted wage of undocumented workers rose rapidly in the past decade. As a result, there was a large decline in the wage penalty associated with undocumented status. The relatively small magnitude of the current wage penalty suggests that a regularization program may only have a modest impact on the wage of undocumented workers.
This research was supported by the U.S. Social Security Administration through grant #RRC08098400-07 to the National Bureau of Economic Research as part of the SSA Retirement Research Consortium. The findings and conclusions expressed are solely those of the author(s) and do not represent the views of SSA, any agency of the Federal Government, or the NBER. I am particularly grateful to Mark Lopez and Jeffrey Passel of the Pew Research Center for their generosity in sharing data files. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Bureau of Economic Research.