clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Here’s how immigrants from countries Trump slammed really do in the US

Three little girls at the Haitian-American Independence Day Parade, in Brooklyn
Three little girls at the Haitian-American Independence Day Parade in Brooklyn.
Debbie Egan-Chin/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

President Trump’s comment about not wanting immigrants from “shithole countries” — which he has unpersuasively denied — came in a very specific context: He was discussing with lawmakers under what conditions Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, and Honduras might be renewed.

Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, grants people fleeing specific crises in specific countries who have entered the United States without any permanent legal status the right to be to be temporarily shielded from prosecution for illegal residency. It doesn’t give them a visa or permanent status, but it does let them live and work here legally for the time being.

In the ensuing uproar, some on the right have asserted that President Trump was really making a good point, however crudely: Maybe we don’t want immigrants from poor countries, who, they assume, are low-skill immigrants. The administration is known to support a more “skills-based” immigration system, and maybe Trump was just, in a clumsy way, trying to articulate that?

Foreign countries have interpreted his remarks very straightforwardly: A joint statement by all 55 African countries included an apology and a request for an clarification of which of them, exactly, President Trump considers to be a “shithole.” Critics from the left have argued that Trump’s comments were not only offensive but ignorant because, actually, immigrants from Africa perform extremely well in the United States.

Unfortunately, the debate so far has featured a dearth of up-to-date, solid empirical work on the countries that benefit from TPS.

In fact, we have quite a lot of data on how immigrants from TPS-receiving countries (and Africa more generally) do after arriving in the US. Countries receiving TPS have, by definition, experienced a severe disaster creating large amounts of emigrants. They also are almost always very poor countries. (It is precisely because some countries are extremely unsafe, poor, and dangerous that we provide TPS.)

So how do immigrants from TPS-receiving countries do in the United States?

Lyman Stone

Most are substantially poorer than native-born Americans, though Syrians are richer. It should surprise nobody that desperate people fleeing disaster-prone countries would tend not to be the highest-earning people in the US.

However, it is worth noting that over the 2011 to 2015 period, the US poverty line was about $11,000 to $12,000 per person. In other words, for every single TPS-receiving group, average incomes were above the poverty line: The typical TPS-country immigrant is not impoverished.

Furthermore, notice the income bars of their home countries: extremely low. At one end of the tail, Somali immigrants only closed about half the income gap between Somalia and the average native-born American. At the other end, Syrians surpassed Americans by 14 percent. The average immigrant from a TPS-receiving country closed about 55 percent of the income gap between the typical US worker and their home: Their income ended up looking more like the average American than it did like the average from their home country.

Lyman Stone

True, poverty rates are fairly high for immigrants from many of these countries. But, again, it’s vital to consider some relevant benchmarks. African immigrants, for instance, are about as likely to be in poverty as are people in the states of Mississippi or New Mexico. Nicaraguans have similar poverty rates as Texas or North Carolina. Somali and Yemeni immigrants, on the other hand, do have quite high poverty rates by any metric.

But income and poverty measures are affected by lots of other variables. Some cultures prioritize family more than work outside the home; they have lower measured income because they have fewer two-income households. Different groups have different age and regional profiles, which also affects incomes. One factor that is somewhat more predictive of core “skills” for an immigrant group is its educational level.

On the whole, about 43 percent of immigrants from all African countries over the age of 30 have a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus just 29 percent of the native-born over-30 population, confirming the view that African immigrants generally are actually a higher-skilled immigrant pool. On the other hand, only about 13 percent of immigrants from TPS-receiving countries have a bachelor’s degree. However, in terms of total years of schooling, these differences are smaller: African immigrants average about 14 years of schooling, native-born Americans about 13.5 years, and TPS-receiving-countries about 10.3 years.

Lyman Stone

But while immigrants from TPS-receiving countries may have lower education than most Americans, they represent a disproportionately well-educated subset of their co-nationals. In every case, the immigrants we receive in the United States from TPS-receiving countries are substantially better-educated than their countrymen back home.

As can be seen from the education and income data, the United States, even in its immigrant programs aimed at the most destitute of nations like TPS or the refugee program, is skimming off the best, most qualified, most capable people from developing countries. Far from getting the worst from poor countries, we really are getting some of the best.

But the question of African immigrants more broadly turns out to be an interesting one, and increasingly pressing. The United States is receiving a growing number of immigrants from Africa. African countries certainly felt targeted by President Trump’s comments, and so it’s worth exploring whether African immigrants in particular, as restrictionists might imagine, are poor, indigent, and low-skilled.

Lyman Stone

Because African population growth continues to be strong while population growth in other parts of the world slumps, there is a growing “pull” on Africans to emigrate. That will be even more true in the future as fertility continues to fall in the United States. But aside from that, incomes in Africa are rising rapidly, with more and more Africans making enough money to be able to finance the cost of immigrating to richer countries. While it may seem counterintuitive, rising incomes can actually drive higher outflows from African countries in the short run as the costs of migration become less prohibitive, although in the long run, improving home-country conditions should help migration flows balance out.

So what are these immigrants like? Are they impoverished, low-skilled people bringing with them the conflicts and troubles of their home countries, jeopardizing American well-being? Not at all! The map below shows each African country. Each country is color-coded by how much more or less money emigrants from that country earn in the United States than the typical native-born American.

Lyman Stone

Immigrants from some countries, like those in East or North Africa, do very well. Others do less well, like those in West and Central Africa. But here’s the key thing to note: There are lots of African countries where their emigrants to the United States make more money than the typical native-born American.

Turning to education, the evidence of positive selection becomes even stronger.

Immigrants from some African countries, especially in the Horn of Africa or far Western Africa, do have lower educational attainment than native-born Americans. On the other hand, Africans from throughout East, Central, and Northern Africa have substantially better educational attainment than native-born Americans.

This isn’t because those countries are extremely well-educated, although educational levels in Africa are rapidly improving throughout most countries on the continent. It’s because the United States skims off the cream of the crop from Africa.

Dreaming about Norwegians

When President Trump tarred some countries, he also lauded one. He asked why we can’t get more immigrants from Norway. The answer, of course, is simple: Norway is a pretty good place to live! One indication of this is the data point that Norwegians in America are poorer than Norwegians in Norway.

Lyman Stone

The truth is that Scandinavians overall earn about as much in America as they would in their home countries. In other words, there’s no reason for them to go to the trouble of migrating to the United States. Back in the 1800s, when Norway was impoverished, emigration rates to the United States were extremely high. It took three or more generations for Norwegian incomes to converge to American norms, but today nobody complains about the economically backward peasant stock of Norway, with their foreign Lutheran customs like pagan-inspired Christmas trees (as used to be the case!).

The United States today, as it always has, receives a lot of immigrants from some very poor and destitute places. And yet today, as always, we succeed in integrating the vast majority of them; they become productive members of society. There are always hiccups of course, and some groups perform better than others, but on the whole, the immigrants we get from the very worst of places often end up being some of our best. African countries, and even disaster-struck countries benefiting from TPS, are no exception.

Lyman Stone, a Vox columnist, is a regional population economics researcher who blogs at In a State of Migration. He is also an agricultural economist at USDA. Find him on Twitter @lymanstoneky.

The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.