Understanding Immigration and Immigrants in California

California has long been an attractive place for immigrants to move to. More than a quarter of California residents are immigrants; in fact, one in four California residents are native-born with at least one immigrant parent. So how did the United States’ most populous state become such a haven for immigrants?

California’s influx of immigrants and U.S.-born citizens began in 1848 with the discovery of gold in the Sierra foothills. In 1850, the U.S. census counted 95,957 residents – this did not include the surviving Indigenous Californians. Twenty years later, California’s population had passed 560,000, with populations of Irish, Chinese, Germans, and English immigrants making up large portions of that total.

Lord James Bryce once wrote, “It is in many respects the most striking in the whole Union, and has more than any other the character of a great country, capable of standing alone in the world.”

How Many People Immigrate To The US Every Year

Did you know the United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world? More than 40 million people in the U.S. were born in another country. According to Pew Research,  immigrants today count for 13.7% of the U.S. population. You also may be surprised to learn that most immigrants (77%) are in the country legally, as opposed to undocumented immigrants that make up just 23% of the total foreign-born U.S. population.

In fact, not all lawful permanent residents choose to apply for U.S. citizenship. While most naturalized immigrants go on to become U.S. citizens, legal Mexican immigrants have the lowest naturalization rate overall. Factors such as language, lack of interest, and financial barriers are typically the most common reasons why Mexican-born Green Card holders do not go on to become U.S. citizens.

California U.S. Immigration Facts

With an increasingly polarized political landscape in the United States, it’s essential to be aware of the facts when it comes to U.S. immigration statistics. Below we’ve listed some of the most commonly asked for information with regards to California immigrants[1]:

  • Most immigrants in California are documented residents: 53% of California’s immigrants are naturalized citizens, and another 25% have some other legal status. Between 2010-2019 the number of undocumented immigrants in California declined from 2.9 million to 2.3 million.
  • After many years of growth, the number of immigrants has leveled off: In the first decade of the 2000s, immigration slowed to 15%, and in the last ten years, the increase was only 6% (around 600,000).
  • Most recent immigrants to California come from Asia: Most of California’s immigrants were born in Latin America (50%) or Asia (39%). However, among immigrants that arrived between 2010-2019, 53% were born in Asia while 31% were born in Latin America.
  • Most of California’s immigrants are bilingual: 70% of immigrants in California report speaking English proficiently, while 10% say they speak no English. At home, most immigrants speak a foreign language with Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese being the most common.

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[1] Sources: American Community Survey and decennial census data from the US Census Bureau and IPUMS; Ruggles et al., Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 (University of Minnesota, 2021); Robert Warren, In 2019, the US Undocumented Population Continued a Decade-Long Decline and the Foreign-Born Population Neared Zero Growth (Center for Migration Studies, 2021); Baldassare et al., PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government (PPIC, March 2019 and January 2021).