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The Characteristics of Unauthorized Immigrants in California, Los Angeles County, and the United States

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Document date: March 06, 2007
Released online: March 06, 2007

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.


Abstract

This report hopes to fill some of the knowledge gaps in the current immigration debate by describing the unauthorized population nationally and in California and Los Angeles—the state and urban area with the largest numbers of these immigrants. Unauthorized immigrants numbered 2.45 million in California in 2004, representing almost one-quarter (24 percent) of the nation's total (10.3 million). There are about 1 million unauthorized immigrants in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, almost twice the number of any other metro area; the unauthorized are one-tenth of the area's population (10 million). The report presents findings about these populations, including their socio-economic characteristics, such as national origin, education, employment, and poverty.


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Executive Summary

The unauthorized population has become a hot political topic yet again, with various solutions to the illegal immigration "problem" being debated in Washington, D.C., and across the country. In June 2006, as this report was written, the U.S. Congress was debating whether to grant legal status to the more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants estimated to be in the country. The House of Representatives had passed a bill that would further criminalize unauthorized presence, while the Senate passed a bill granting temporary work permits to unauthorized workers and providing a path to eventual citizenship for those in the country at least two years. The two pieces of legislation are very far apart, reflecting the fact that no consensus exists—in Congress, within or between the political parties, or in the public at large—on the best solution to the long-range integration issues that such a large unauthorized population presents. The debate has centered on stereotypes about unauthorized immigrants—as workers and taxpayers on the positive side, or as lawbreakers and service users on the negative side—but the debate has not been well informed by research on the characteristics of the unauthorized population.

This report hopes to fill some of the knowledge gaps in the current immigration debate by describing the unauthorized population nationally and in California and Los Angeles—the state and urban area with the largest numbers of these immigrants. The report presents estimates for the sizes of these populations as well as findings about socio-economic characteristics, such as national origin, education, employment, and poverty. Throughout the report, the characteristics of unauthorized immigrants are contrasted with legal immigrants and the native-born population. In addition, the report discusses national trends in the number of unauthorized immigrants, and compares California and Los Angeles unauthorized immigrants to the national population.

  • California has the largest unauthorized population of any state—almost 2.5 million; almost a quarter of the nation's unauthorized immigrants live there. Unauthorized immigrants numbered 2.45 million in California in 2004, representing almost one-quarter (24 percent) of the nation's total (10.3 million). The unauthorized share of the total population was almost twice as high in California (6.9 percent) as in the United States (3.6 percent). Thus, the debate over legalizing the unauthorized population will likely have more impact on California than any other state.
  • There are about 1 million unauthorized immigrants in the Los Angeles metropolitan area, almost twice the number of any other metro area; the unauthorized are one-tenth of the area's population (10 million). In 2004, about two-fifths (41 percent) of California's unauthorized population resided in Los Angeles. No other metropolitan area had as many unauthorized immigrants as Los Angeles—New York had the second largest metropolitan concentration with slightly more than half a million unauthorized immigrants. The other metropolitan areas with very large numbers of unauthorized immigrants were Dallas (460,000), Chicago (400,000), Houston (390,000), Phoenix (350,000), Washington, D.C. (345,000), and Atlanta (235,000). Two Southern California metropolitan areas that border Los Angeles—Orange County (220,000) and Riverside–San Bernardino (215,000)— rounded out the top 10.
  • Mexican immigrants account for a higher share of the foreign-born in California and Los Angeles (43 percent) than in the nation as a whole (32 percent). California also had a higher share of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico (65 percent) than the United States or Los Angeles (57 percent) in 2004. Due to its proximity to the Southwestern border, California's immigrant population—both legal and unauthorized—is more heavily Mexican than most other states. Thus, the debate surrounding legalization mostly affects Mexican immigrants in California. Nonetheless, about one-third of California's unauthorized immigrants come from other countries, suggesting that there is great diversity in this population.
  • One in 10 California residents is in a family headed by an unauthorized immigrant, compared with one in 20 nationally. An even higher share of Los Angeles residents (14 percent) lived in unauthorized households in 2004. The debate surrounding unauthorized immigrants' future affects not only these migrants but also a large number of adults and children who live with them.
  • About half of California's children have immigrant parents, and about oneseventh have unauthorized parents, in contrast to the nation as a whole, where one-fifth of children have immigrant parents. In 2004, 48 percent of children in California were children of immigrants—that is, they had at least one foreign-born parent: 34 percent had legal immigrant parents, and 14 percent had unauthorized parents. Nationally, just 15 percent of children had legal immigrant parents, and 6 percent had unauthorized parents. California's schools represent the future of most states in the country, a future in which a majority or near majority of school children will have immigrant parents.
  • In Los Angeles, almost two-thirds of children (62 percent) have immigrant parents. In 2004, 43 percent of children in the metropolitan area had legal immigrant parents, and 19 percent had unauthorized parents. Los Angeles is setting the pace for other major metropolitan areas in the country, where a growing majority of children will have immigrant parents and a significant share have unauthorized parents.
  • Large majorities of children with unauthorized parents are U.S.-born citizens: 68 percent in California and 76 percent in Los Angeles. These shares were slightly higher than nationally (66 percent) in 2004. Thus, despite the fact that there are more children in unauthorized immigrant families in California than in the United States overall, children in these families are more likely to be citizens in California than nationally. This means that a large majority of California's children in unauthorized families are eligible for the full range of state and federal public benefits due to their citizenship, even if the parents are ineligible due to their lack of legal status.
  • Almost all unauthorized men work, and labor force participation rates are substantially higher for unauthorized men than for legal immigrant or U.S.-born men. In California, 94 percent of unauthorized men age 18–64 were in the labor force in 2004, versus 84 percent of legal immigrants and 82 percent of native-born men. The shares were similar nationally and in Los Angeles. Unauthorized men have higher labor force participation rates than other men because they are younger and are less likely to be disabled, retired, or enrolled in higher education. These statistics show that virtually all unauthorized men come to California to work.
  • By contrast, labor force participation is much lower for both unauthorized and legal immigrant women than for U.S.-born women, mostly because unauthorized women are more likely to have children. In 2004 in California, unauthorized women participated in the labor force at a similar rate as legal immigrant women (58 percent versus 59 percent), but the labor force participation rate was much higher for native-born women (72 percent). Women's labor force participation patterns were similar in the United States and Los Angeles. The main reason for immigrant women's lower rates of participation is childbearing: immigrant women are younger and have more children on average than native-born women.
  • Unauthorized immigrants represent over a quarter of all workers in many low-skilled occupations in California, especially in Los Angeles. For example, in 2004 in Los Angeles, about 80 percent of production workers were foreign-born (50 percent were legal immigrants, and 30 percent unauthorized); only 20 percent were natives. Nationally, immigrants were also over represented in production occupations but 77 percent of production workers were natives. Because of the high share of unauthorized immigrants in Los Angeles overall, they represented more than a quarter of all workers in production, construction, and service occupations. These figures suggest that Los Angeles is heavily dependent on unauthorized labor in many lowskilled occupations, and that any effort to deport large numbers of immigrants or deny them employment could have a deleterious impact on the California economy.
  • Unauthorized family incomes are about half of incomes of families headed by U.S.-born citizens, nationally and in California. In 2003 in California, unauthorized families had an average income of $29,700, compared with $54,600 for native-born citizens. The average family income for unauthorized immigrants was lower still in Los Angeles ($26,300). Moreover, unauthorized immigrant families were much larger than native-born families (by 37 percent in California and 43 percent in Los Angeles), which further reduced the income available to individual members of these families. The low incomes of unauthorized families are explained primarily by the low-skilled, low-paying jobs held by unauthorized workers. Almost all of these families, however, include workers, and many include multiple workers.
  • In California, almost a quarter of children with legal immigrant parents, and almost two-fifths of children with unauthorized parents, are poor. In 2003, 24 percent of children of legal immigrants and 38 percent of children of unauthorized immigrants were poor in California, compared with 15 percent for children of U.S.-born citizens. Poverty rates were similarly high for children of immigrants in Los Angeles and the United States. Since such high shares of children in California live in immigrant families, these high poverty rates present many challenges to policymakers in the state. Anti-poverty programs must consider the high number of children in immigrant families and devise ways to disseminate information and reach children that are eligible. These challenges are even more apparent for Los Angeles, where the shares of children of immigrants are even higher.
  • Over half of unauthorized adults and a quarter of children in unauthorized families lack health insurance coverage in California, and even higher shares of the unauthorized are uninsured in Los Angeles. In 2004 in California, unauthorized adults were almost four times as likely as U.S.-born adults to lack health insurance coverage (53 versus 14 percent), and children with unauthorized parents were almost three times as likely as those with U.S.-born parents to lack coverage (26 versus 9 percent). However, children of unauthorized immigrants in California were less likely to lack insurance than nationally (26 versus 35 percent). In fact, among children who were themselves unauthorized—and therefore ineligible for federal- or state-funded coverage—the uninsured share actually fell in California (from 49 to 32 percent) and in Los Angeles (from 58 to 44 percent) between 2000 and 2004. These findings strongly support the efforts of Los Angeles and other California counties to provide universal coverage to low-income children regardless of their legal status, and show that these county programs are beginning to have an impact on insurance coverage in unauthorized families.

The complete paper is available in PDF format.



Topics/Tags: | Immigrants


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