February Jobs Report: Immigrants Power U.S. Job Growth but Struggle for Rights at Work

Nationwide—The economy gained 275,000 jobs in February while the unemployment rate rose to 3.9% according to new data from Bureau of Labor Statistics. The economy has added more than 2.7 million jobs since February 2023, a robust rate of job growth.

“One of the most crucial forces driving the nation’s job growth and economic vitality over the last year has been immigration,” said Rebecca Dixon, president and CEO of the National Employment Law Project (NELP). “Yet immigrant workers are also at the center of a growing crisis of workplace abuse, with undocumented and temporary visa migrant workers among the most vulnerable to abuses including wage theft, health and safety risks, child labor violations, and retaliation from employers. That’s why it’s critical that immigrant workers have the power to demand respect and dignity and fully enforce their workplace rights.”

The Congressional Budget Office projects that, over the next decade, the U.S. economy will grow by $7 trillion more than it would have without the arrival of new immigrants. In addition to their powerful national impact, a recent study by the Immigration Research Institute details how immigrant workers, including newly arriving asylum seekers and refugees, quickly contribute to both local economic growth and increased tax revenues in states and cities across the country.

Despite their substantial contributions to the economy and to communities across the U.S., immigrant workers who speak up about workplace abuses often face immigration-related retaliation. A recently-published guide by NELP Senior Staff Attorney Marisa Díaz and partners details how workers and advocates can use deferred action to protect against this type of retaliation, build power, and collaborate with federal and state labor agencies to hold employers accountable for abuses and legal violations.

Immigrant workers consistently participate in the labor force at a higher rate than their U.S.-born counterparts yet face higher rates of unemployment as a result of barriers to employment. In February, the unemployment rate among foreign-born workers was 4.7% compared to 4.0% for workers born in the United States. Despite elevated unemployment rates, immigrant workers without documentation are shut out of the unemployment insurance system by federal law. In states across the country, workers and advocates are organizing for Excluded Worker Programs to support undocumented workers and others who are excluded from UI benefits.

The unemployment rate for Black workers was 5.6% in February and the unemployment rate for Latinx workers was 5.0% compared to a rate of just 3.4% for white workers. Unemployment among Asian workers was 3.4%. Continuing disparities in unemployment rates are a result of structural racism in the U.S. labor market, including occupational segregation.

Unemployment insurance should act as a bridge so that anyone who is out of work can sustain themselves as they seek a new job. The Unemployment Insurance Modernization and Recession Readiness Act, introduced by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Representative Don Beyer (D-VA), would strengthen this critical piece of social infrastructure by mandating that states offer at least 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, raising benefit amounts to replace a greater share of workers’ prior earnings, and increasing coverage for part-time workers, temp workers, and workers whose earnings fluctuate over time. The bill also establishes a new, federally funded Jobseekers Allowance to support jobless workers who would not otherwise be covered by unemployment insurance and modernizes the Extended Benefits program that makes additional weeks of unemployment benefits available in times of high unemployment.

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