Immigrants in Creative Industries

  • Across all industries in the U.S. economy, there were more than 400,000 immigrants working in creative or artistic occupations, helping support the nearly $1 trillion creative industry sector in the United States.
  • There were more than 25,000 immigrant actors, producers, and directors; nearly 23,000 musicians; more than 17,400 photographers; and more than 16,000 writers and authors nationwide.
  • Overall, immigrants made up 1 in 8 workers in the motion picture industry, and nearly 1 in 8 workers in broadcast industries. Immigrants also made up more than 1 in 10 workers in the music recording industry.

Beyond significant economic contributions as workers, entrepreneurs, consumers, and taxpayers, immigrant artists, writers, and performers have long enriched the cultural and artistic fabric of our nation. Excelling in various fields, from literature, to movies, music, and fine art, immigrants have made a deep impression on American culture, helping push artistic boundaries and spreading American culture and ideals throughout the world.

Immigrant artists are some of the most well-known names. Immigrant musicians include some of the top selling artists of our time, including Carlos Santana (Mexico), Yo-Yo Ma (China), Gloria Estefan (Cuba), Dave Matthews (South Africa), and Rihanna (Barbados). Some of the world’s most award-winning directors are also immigrants, including Ang Lee (Taiwan), Frank Darabont (Hungary), Christopher Nolan (United Kingdom), and M. Night Shyamalan (India). In front of the camera and on stage, immigrants are also well-represented with American actors such as Mila Kunis (Ukraine), Sandra Oh (Canada), Charlize Theron (South Africa), Kumail Nanjiani (Pakistan), and Anthony Hopkins (United Kingdom) all hailing from abroad. Lastly, immigrant authors and writers have long made their mark in America, from the late Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) and Elie Wiesel (Romania), to modern-day authors such as Junot Diaz (Dominican Republic), Edwidge Danticat (Haiti), Min Jin Lee (South Korea), Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnam), and Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan).

To explore the collective contributions of all immigrants, not just those that are household names, NAE turned to the 2017 American Community Survey to look at how the creative force of immigrant workers are helping support and propel the publishing, movie, music, broadcast, and performing arts industries of the United States. Each year these industries add almost $1 Trillion to the United States’ GDP, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Across all industries in the U.S. economy, there were more than 400,000 immigrants working in creative or artistic occupations. In some specific occupations, immigrants made up significant shares of the entire workforce. For example, immigrants made up 37.2 percent of all media and communications workers, and more than 15 percent of all designers. Meanwhile, there were more than 25,000 immigrant actors, producers, and directors; nearly 23,000 musicians; more than 17,400 photographers; and more than 16,000 writers and authors nationwide.

Figure 1: Creative Occupations by Share Foreign-Born, 2017

Occupation Number of Foreign-Born Workers Share of Workforce, Foreign-Born
Media and Communications Writers 48,576 37.2%
Designers 136,644 15.1%
Artists and Related Workers 27,605 13.1%
Announcers 6,922 12.7%
Dancers and Choreographers 2,775 12.7%
TV, Radio, and Film Camera Operators and Editors 8,320 12.3%
Actors, Producers, Directors 25,470 11.6%
Musicians, Singers, and Related Workers 22,897 11.6%
Broadcast and Sound Recording Engineering Technicians and Radio Operators 13,008 11.2%
Athletes, Coaches, Umpires and Related Workers 32,185 10.3%
Photographers 17,453 9.8%
Editors, News Analysts, Reporters, and Correspondents 23,109 9.3%
Entertainers and Performers 4,161 8.7%
Public Relations Specialists 11,878 8.6%
Technical Writers 4,366 7.5%
Writers and Authors 16,112 6.7%
Source: 2017 American Community Survey. Note: Numbers reflect what respondents to the survey gave as their primary occupation.

When we look at some key specific creative industries, we find that immigrants are also playing important roles in each. This includes 1 in 8 workers in the motion picture and video industry who were foreign-born as well as more than 1 in 10 workers in the sound and music recording industry.

Figure 2: Foreign-Born Share of Workforce by Selected Creative Industries

Industry Immigrant Share of Workforce
Motion Picture and Video Industries 12.5%
Broadcast, non-Internet 12.1%
Sound Recording Industries 10.9%
Internet Publishing and Broadcasting 9.2%
Newspaper Publishing 8.1%
Source: 2017 American Community Survey.

In a country made of up of progressive waves of immigrants over its rich history, it is perhaps no surprise that the cultural, creative, and artistic landscape and industry in the United States owes so much to workers who were born abroad. The next time you pick up a newspaper, open a new novel, start a podcast, or even watch a new film it’s likely that its creator, editor, designer, or director was an immigrant.

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