Working to find actionable solutions to the nation's key challenges.

Immigrant Integration in the United States and the European Union

By Lazaro Zamora, ,

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someonePrint this page

Discussion regarding immigrant integration is playing a significant role in both Europe and the United States in response to violent attacks in recent years. In the United States, immigrant integration is a primary objective for the Department of Homeland Security’s strategy to counter violent extremism. In Europe, discussions about integration of immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, have been increasing in the wake of civil disruption and terrorist attacks. Some have encouraged the Europeans to look at the United States as a model for immigrant integration.

In September, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released The Integration of Immigrants into American Society, one of the most comprehensive studies of immigrant integration in the United States. To place U.S. immigrant integration in context, we compare these integration indicators with the situation in the European Union (EU), which is grappling with the largest immigrant crisis in the recent history of the Old Continent.

First, it is important to understand what integration actually means. The National Academies’ study defines integration as a process by which members of immigrant groups and host societies come to resemble one another. The process of integration includes many factors, but in this blog post we focus on employment, income, and education—the three commonly-used metrics to measure integration. This post will focus on those measures in comparing U.S. and E.U. integration outcomes.

Immigration Demographics

Throughout its history, the United States has been a popular destination for immigrants. According to U.S. Census data, the foreign-born population is currently 43 million people, or 13.47 percent of the total population, and will continue to play an important role in future population growth. The EU immigrant population is a smaller, but growing percentage of the overall population. In 2013, there were 20 million immigrants who constituted 4.1 percent of the population, up from 3.4 percent in 2005. Since none of the EU member countries have broad birthright citizenship as the United States does, the European immigration numbers also include individuals born in the host country, who account for about 7 percent of the total immigrant population. However, children of immigrants in the EU can generally obtain citizenship if they fulfill naturalization criteria that varies in each member state. With the recent refugee crisis in Europe, the share of immigrants has likely increased in 2014 and 2015. The data is not yet available, but as the number of immigrants in Europe rises, their integration may become increasingly relevant.

Government Tools for Integration 

The United States federal government is responsible for most of the immigration system, but integration is a notable exception. According to a Government Accountability Office report, “no single federal entity has been designated to lead the creation, implementation, and coordination of a national immigrant integration capability,” and states and localities have taken the lead on integrating immigrants into their communities. Several states have agencies that promote integration efforts. For example, New York launched an Office for New Americans in 2013 that is comprised of 27 Opportunity Centers that provide English classes and career and legal resources. While there is an Office of Citizenship within the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which was created with the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, it relies upon local governments and NGO partners to promote integration.

European Union member states share immigration and visa regulations but some legal aspects of immigration are the prerogative of national governments. While immigrant integration is a national responsibility, the European Commission introduced a common integration framework intended to form the foundation of EU integration initiatives. It includes three tools to improve immigrant integration. First, the European Migration Network provides accurate information to the EU institutions and the member states. Second, the EU Immigration Portal serves as a resource for individuals interested in moving to or within the EU. Third, the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund administers €3.137 billion to endorse effective management of migration flows and strengthen the development of a common EU approach to asylum and immigration. 


According to the National Academies’ report, immigrants in America benefit from an open labor market and generally are able to access employment. The Bipartisan Policy Center’s research also shows that 63 percent of the foreign-born are employed, which is actually higher than the employment rate for native-born Americans, which stands at 59 percent. Overall, the foreign-born labor participation rate is 66 percent, compared to 62.3 percent for the native-born. The highest employment rate was among men with low levels of education, suggesting that there is a demand for lesser-skilled labor in the United States. Although high-skilled immigrants are also generally employed, many are in jobs below their skill level. In the 100 largest metro areas, 49 percent of the foreign-born are overqualified for their current jobs, compared to 36 percent of the native-born.

In the EU, 54 percent of immigrants are employed. However, their employment rate is generally lower than that of host-country nationals. Moreover, the immigrant unemployment rate is double the unemployment rate of EU nationals and the average rate of over-qualification among immigrants is 44 percent, more than double the 20 percent among host-country nationals. In Italy and Greece, two of the EU countries that were hit hardest by the 2009 economic crisis, the rate reaches as high 80 percent.


While the foreign-born in the United States are employed at similar levels as native-born workers, they tend to earn less. Overall, the median household income of the foreign-born was $47,753 in 2013, compared to $52,910 in native-born households. The native-born are also 16 percent more likely to own their own homes. Also, 18.7 percent of the foreign-born live below the poverty level, compared to 15.4 percent of the native-born. However, these are overall figures that mask the wide divisions with the foreign-born population. For example, the poverty rates among foreign-born Asians is 10.9 percent while the poverty rate among foreign-born Hispanics is 23.5 percent. The gap in poverty levels generally reflects the level of education that immigrants possess when they arrive in the United States.

Immigrants in the EU also tend to earn less than host-country nationals. The annual median income of immigrants is €15,000 (approx. $18,280), lower than the €17,241 annual median income of host-country nationals. The poverty rate of immigrant households is 39 percent, double the poverty rate of EU national households. In 2012, immigrants in all EU member states were also three times less likely than host-country nationals to own their own homes.


Like the range of incomes and wealth among the foreign-born in the United States, there is also a range of educational backgrounds. On average, Asian and European immigrants have 14.9 and 14.4 years of education respectively while Mexicans possess 9.4 years of education and Central American immigrants possess 9.8. However, for groups with lower levels of education in the first generation, both men and women gain substantially in education from the first to the second generation. Among Mexican-American men for instance, average education rises from 9.4 years to 12.6 years in the second generation. Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of recent arrivals possess a bachelor’s degree, more than the 20 percent of immigrants with similar education who arrived in 1970.

In 2012-13, across the EU, 47 percent of immigrants were poorly educated (finishing middle-school at most) compared to 29 percent of EU citizens. Moreover, 18 percent of immigrants ages 25-34 have just a primary-school education while only 4 percent of host-country nationals possess only a primary school education. Despite the differences in education levels, the employment levels of immigrants and host-country citizens with low levels of education are about the same. However, non-EU nationals with higher education find it more difficult to obtain employment than EU citizens. Specifically, the employment gap between higher-educated immigrants and host-country nationals is about 16 percentage points across the member states. The primary cause of the variation is the difficulty in transferring foreign qualifications into the European labor market.

Barriers to Integration

While immigrants in the United States integrate well overall, the report notes “three barriers to immigrant integration that are of particular concern.” First is the lack of legal status, which affects an estimated 11.6 million people. While undocumented immigrants still integrate, limited employment and educational opportunities tend to suppress their wages and education levels when compared to other groups. There are also 4.5 million American citizens with undocumented parents, which can prevent those children from accessing social programs and public benefits for which they are eligible.

The study also found that racial barriers play a role in integration. While the foreign-born income increases over time, “these overall patterns, however, are still shaped by racial and ethnic stratification. Immigrants experience a substantial earnings penalty as skin color darkens.” For example, one study found that with other factors controlled for, immigrants with darker skin tones earned 17 percent less than those with lighter skin.

Low rates of naturalization are another barrier. Only about 50 percent of the eligible immigrant population has naturalized, a lower percentage than the foreign-born in most European countries, Australia, and Canada. However, USCIS has sought to address the problem recently by promoting citizenship among eligible immigrants.

As for the EU, despite the member countries integration efforts, nearly a quarter of immigrants living in the member states felt discriminated against because of their origins. Moreover, immigrants born in the host country feel equally discriminated as their peers born-abroad. While the Scandinavian countries and Luxembourg show the lowest levels of perceived discrimination, the opposite situation has been seen in Greece and Austria.