In Los Angeles, 1 in 10 residents is an illegal immigrant, study says

A new study looks at California's illegal immigrant population in detail, providing insights on how immigration reform proposals in Washington could affect the community nationwide.

David McNew/Reuters
Marchers in Los Angeles call for immigration reform during the International Workers Day and Immigration Reform March on May Day last week.

A report released Tuesday suggests that one quarter of the illegal immigrant workforce in the United States lives in California, and it offers a detailed look at who they are and how they live, using the Golden State as a microcosm to explore how current immigration reform efforts in Washington could impact America.

The study by the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration estimates that about 7 percent of California residents – or more than 2.6 million people – are in the country illegally. In Los Angeles County – the nation’s most populous – 1 in 10 residents is illegal. Sixty-three percent of those undocumented residents in Los Angeles are Mexican, 22 percent are from Central America and 8 percent are from the Philippines, China, or Korea.

Statewide, immigrants are concentrated in seasonal or low-wage industries such as farm work and retail trade, according to the report. But nearly half have lived in the US for 10 years or more, meaning they are more often than not permanent residents rather than seasonal migrants. Moreover, they generate more than $31 billion in personal income, even though they endure high levels of poverty.

For policymakers in Washington, that suggests that the challenges facing the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants are unlikely to go away if immigration reform efforts fail.

“What sticks out to me about this report is that it shows how many immigrants have been in the country more than 10 years that are not just migrants, and who have children born here who are naturalized citizens,” says Michael Moreland, vice dean of the Villanova Law School in Pennsylvania, who was associate director for domestic policy in the George W. Bush White House. “They are established members of the community so if they are not dealt with, the current reform is just kicking the can down the road again.” [Editor's note: Mr. Moreland's name was incorrect in the original version.]

The authors of the report, titled “What’s at Stake for the State,” strike a similar chord. 

“Just as this conversation is heating up in D.C., it is important that those of us in California stay focused on what is needed in an immigration reform bill – and after – to help the state prosper,” they write.

Here are some of the key findings:

  • In spite of low median wages, many undocumented immigrants have managed to buy homes: An estimated 17 percent of the state's unauthorized immigrants who are heads of household are homeowners.
  • The median age of unauthorized immigrants in California is 31, a prime working age, compared with 50 for naturalized immigrants and 44 for noncitizens here legally. Full-time unauthorized workers earn $30,000 less a year on average than native-born ones.
  • The state's unauthorized immigrants are predominantly Latino – 85 percent – but quite diverse. Mexicans make up the majority (75 percent), but Central Americans are also well represented. Asians and Pacific Islanders make up about 12 percent of the state's unauthorized population, with Filipinos, Koreans, and Chinese among the largest groups.
  • The US-born children of unauthorized immigrants have a tougher time than those born to parents who are here legally. Many don't obtain services or programs they are eligible for because they fear exposing  their parents, and childhood poverty is pervasive.

The report's authors argue that integrating California's unauthorized immigrants via a path to legal status will improve not just their lot, but that of successive generations, allowing their children to live better and contribute more to the economy.

“Their future is our state’s future; when families are stable and able to earn better wages, then their kids can also flourish – in school and in life – in securing our state’s future,” says Manuel Pastor, director of the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and a co-author of the report.

But Ira Mehlman, national spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform warns against some of the interpretations of the report.

“The report suggests that a benefit of amnesty would be that illegal aliens and their families would make more use of government assistance programs that the state can barely afford to finance now,” says Mr. Mehlman. “This would seem to be a tacit admission on the part of the authors that they anticipate that high levels of poverty would continue even after amnesty. The report also suggests that California taxpayers should be responsible for providing English classes and educational opportunities,” further increasing the burdens the state is already incurring.

Some national analysts caution that just because California’s immigrant population is so large, that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that numbers have grown in states such as North Carolina, Nebraska, and Iowa.

While 49 percent of California's illegal immigrants have been in the country for more than 10 years, the national average is 60 percent, says Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Council.

“Journalists should be asking how many other places in America, including some very unexpected places, have a lot at stake in this debate," he says.

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