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