Researchers and policymakers frequently debate about the integration of immigrants into the US economy. These debates are often based on limited data that do not capture the diversity of immigrants who arrived in the later twentieth century. Related research has also struggled to incorporate the experience of short‐term immigrants or immigrants who move in and out of the labor force. Using records from the Social Security Administration, we track the complete cohort of foreign‐born men who received social security numbers in 1978 through their subsequent working years and characterize their earning trajectories. We find that the share of foreign‐born men with low earnings declined over time, mainly due to attrition from the formal labor force. We also show, for the first time, that immigrants’ employment and earning histories vary considerably by their countries of origin: while those from several countries in Asia and Africa experienced substantial earnings growth and tended to stay in the United States for the long term, men from Central America and the Caribbean experienced more stagnation and had high levels of temporary and permanent attrition from the formal labor force. We end by discussing the historical contingencies and socioeconomic contexts—in sending countries and the United States—that shaped these trajectories.
Published in a peer-reviewed journal of the Population Council.