Refugee Workers on the Frontlines and as Essential Workers

Updated on July 23, 2020 with new data on refugees and gender.

Immigrants who have come to the United States as refugees fled conflict, disaster, and danger in their home countries to find safe haven. Now, faced with a new crisis in their new home in America, many refugee workers are helping fight the coronavirus outbreak both as frontline healthcare workers and as essential workers that keep the country running in these difficult times.

According to the latest data from the American Community Survey, 2018, healthcare is the second most common field for refugees in the United States, with 15.6 percent of all refugees working in the healthcare sector.

Overall, there are more than 176,000 refugee healthcare workers, with some states with large refugee populations, like California, Texas, and Minnesota having significant numbers of refugees.

Refugee Workers in the Healthcare Industry

State Number of Workers
California 38,900
Texas 13,500
Minnesota 13,000
New York 11,400
Virginia 8,700
Other States 75,000
U.S. Total 161,000
Source: 2018 American Community Survey, 5-year sample.

Digging deeper we find that refugees in healthcare tend to concentrate in some key support and frontline roles:

Top 10 Occupations for Refugee Workers in Healthcare

Occupation Share of All Refugee Healthcare Workers
Personal Care Aides 21.3%
Registered Nurses 14.2%
Nursing Assistants 11.5%
Physicians 8.2%
Pharmacists 6.2%
Home Health Aides 5.7%
Licensed Practical and Vocational Nurses 3.3%
Pharmacy Technicians 3.2%
Medical Assistants 3.0%
Clinical Laboratory Technologists and Technicians 3.0%
Source: NAE analysis of 2018 American Community Survey Data, 1-Year Sample.

In some states, they make up significant numbers of the most critical frontline healthcare workers.

Most Popular Healthcare Jobs for Refugee Workers, Selected States

State Occupation #1 Number of Workers Occupation #2 Number of Workers Occupation #3 Number of Workers
California Nurses 7,500 Health Aides 4,500 Physicians and Surgeons 3,600
Texas Nurses 2,500 Health Aides 2,100 Physicians and Surgeons 1,000
Minnesota Health Aides 4,900 Nurses 2,300 n.a. n.a.
New York Health Aides 2,600 Nurses 1,700 Physicians and Surgeons 1,200
Virginia Health Aides 2,000 Nurses 1,500 Physicians and Surgeons 800
Source: 2018 American Community Survey, 5-year sample.

Outside of healthcare, we find that refugee workers are also vital to ensuring that America’s food supply chain functions. More than 46,000 refugee workers work in food processing, including more than 9,300 butchers and meat processing workers. More than 31,000 work in grocery stores and supermarkets, including 2,400 shelf stockers and 2,100 freight and stock movers. Meanwhile, more than 77,500 refugee workers work in restaurants and food service establishment, including 14,000 cooks.

Refugee Workers in Food Supply Chain Industries

Industry Number of Refugee Workers
Agriculture 6,500
Food Processing 46,300
Wholesale Trade 8,600
Groceries and Supermarket 31,000
Restaurants and Food Service 77,500
Total Food Supply Chain Industry 170,000
Source: 2018 American Community Survey, 5-year sample. Figures do not add up to total due to rounding.

Refugee Workers in the Food Supply Chain, by State

State Number of Refugee Workers
California 32,800
Texas 14,900
Minnesota 8,700
Georgia 7,100
Florida 6,500
All Other States 100,100
Source: 2018 American Community Survey, 5-year sample.

Refugees in Healthcare

Building off of our research looking at refugees on the front lines of the COVID-19 response, this week, we looked at how this workforce breaks down by gender. 

There are approximately 176,000 refugee workers in the U.S. healthcare sector – 70.6 percent — or about 124,200 — are women. Female refugee women are present at all levels of the healthcare workforce, including as:

  • Health Aides: 33,700 refugee women
  • Nurses: 23,500
  • Physicians and Surgeons: 5,500
  • Maids and housekeeping cleaners: 4,400
  • Dental assistants: 3,500

Refugee men, meanwhile are concentrated in the following occupations:

  • Physicians and Surgeons: 8,400
  • Health Aides: 7,300
  • Nurses: 5,100
  • Dentists: 2,600
  • Clinical laboratory technologists and technicians: 1,800

Refugees and U.S. Food Supply: Meanwhile, in the U.S. food supply chain, the data also shows that refugees play a significant role.- In 2018, there were 175,000 refugee workers supporting everything from farms, to manufacturers, to food service and restaurants. – 62.2% — or 109,000 — are men. 

Like all immigrants and Americans, refugees are doing their fair share of the work that is needed for the country to overcome the immense challenge the Covid-19 outbreak represents.

If you would like to learn more about immigrants in the United States in the time of Covid-19, check out our research portal on Immigration and Covid-19. If you have any specific questions about our data, please reach out to us at

About Us

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…