Immigrant California
Understanding the Past, Present, and Future of U.S. Policy
Edited by David Scott FitzGerald and John D. Skrentny



Lessons from California

David Scott FitzGerald and John D. Skrentny

If California were its own country, it would have the world’s fifth-largest immigrant population. There are more immigrants in California than there are in several countries where immigration has been exhaustively studied and debated, including the United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates, France, and Canada.1 California has the most immigrants in the United States (almost eleven million) and the highest share in its population (27%).2 The state is one of the most important immigrant destinations in the world.

The way these newcomers are integrated into the nation’s most populous state will shape its schools, workforce, businesses, public health, politics, and culture for generations to come. Public policies in each of these areas affect integration. Understanding the incorporation of immigrants, defined here as all resident foreign-born individuals, and their descendants is essential for the state’s future well-being. Given that immigration is one of the defining political, social, and economic issue of our times—both in the United States as a whole and across the developed world—the lessons of California are essential for anyone interested in human rights, social stability, and economic vitality.

We argue here that although California is unique in several respects, including its large and diverse demography, its powerful economy, and its progressive politics, it is nevertheless a bellwether for other states. Immigration may have slowed during the Trump administration, but demographic change and increased diversity are coming to most states. California provides important lessons for what to expect, and how to manage this new diversity. Viewing California’s history of demographic change shows evidence of, on the one hand, political backlash against rapid immigration and demographic change and, on the other, more accommodating immigration policies enacted once the size of an immigrant population reaches a tipping point. It is important to note that although correlated with demographic shifts, these policies are strongly moderated by partisan politics.

The California experience demonstrates the capacity of a state to absorb very high numbers of newcomers—much higher than the United States as a whole, though the record is not consistent, and the politics and policy have not always been harmonious or effective. High levels of immigration have occurred at the same time as economic growth and appear to have been a locomotive of expansion—nowhere more than in the world-leading technology sector of Silicon Valley. In other sectors, however, there is a more mixed record. The design of education systems to integrate children who arrive speaking languages other than English became highly politicized in the 1990s. The result has been suboptimal policies that track some children into programs that unintentionally downgrade their academic potential. In health care, the state has shown the possibilities of innovating to create new mechanisms guaranteeing access to basic care. However, the federal system also creates serious constraints, particularly given the hostility between the Trump administration and California’s elected policymakers. The unsettled legal framework around public health care has generated uncertainties for both immigrants and the native-born seeking medical services. Finally, the state has promoted some areas of immigrant integration, such as allowing unauthorized immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses, while doing relatively little to promote naturalization. As a result, as in the rest of the country, many of California’s immigrants have not naturalized even though they are eligible, which creates a drag on the full political integration of the state’s residents.

By examining the past and present of immigration policy in California, we show how a state that was the national leader in anti-immigrant policies quickly became a standard-bearer for greater accommodation. We argue that by reading these important cases together, other jurisdictions can see the importance of avoiding California’s failed policies, its divisiveness, and its highly politicized provision of public services. At the same time, they may see what has worked in the Golden State. For example, the chapters that follow highlight the sometimes-successful leveraging of immigrant skills for technological innovation and the pragmatic adaptation to the realities of a multicultural population and a socially embedded group of long-term residents who lack legal immigration status. The book as a whole thus provides a road map for future prosperity for immigrants and natives alike in California and the rest of the nation.

Demographic Profile of California’s Immigrants

Before exploring how California is a bellwether, model, or antimodel, we sketch a portrait of immigrant California and how it came to be where it is now. First, if we look back at the composition of the states since the time of the earliest immigration restrictions in the nineteenth century, we see that California has always been a leader in immigrant reception, hosting a greater percentage of foreign-born residents than the United States as a whole. Figure 1.1 shows that in 1870, 38% of its population was born abroad, compared to 14% in the United States as a whole. From 1960 to 1970, the share of Californians born abroad dipped to a low of 9%, but that figure was still nearly twice as high as in the entire United States. Immigration rapidly increased in the following three decades, to California in particular, and by the 2010s, 27% of Californians were born abroad, twice as high as in the United States as a whole. As sociologist Manuel Pastor (2018, 72) argues, “it is little wonder that anti-immigrant politics made a special debut in California, foreshadowing what would happen to the rest of America in the 2000s and 2010s.”

Although California has always had a large immigrant population, the origins of California’s immigrants have changed dramatically over time. Figure 1.2 shows that early migration was dominated by Europeans and Asians. Following restrictions on Chinese immigration in 1882, the Gentlemen’s Agreement between Japan and the United States in 1907, the imposition of an “Asiatic Barred Zone” in 1917, and the quota acts beginning in 1921, Asian immigration fell sharply and did not return to a large share of the population until after 1965, when the national-origins quotas were dismantled. The Asian share of the total has been slowly increasing ever since. The Latin American share reached around half of all immigrants in 1980, and continued to increase until around 2000, before slowly falling. However, the political debates about immigration continue to focus on Latinos as public awareness lags actual demographic changes.

The United States captured Alta California from Mexico in the 1846–1848 war. The Treaty of Guadalupe gave residents the option of staying and becoming U.S. citizens. They didn’t cross the border; the border crossed them. Since then, Mexico has been a consistently large source of immigration. Mexico continued to be the primary source of the state’s immigrants in 2017, accounting for 38% of the foreign born. The four next-largest countries of origin were all in Asia—the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and India. Table 1.1 shows the twenty principal immigrant nationalities. The list shows the extreme diversity of origins, which includes countries such as Thailand, Germany, Armenia, and Peru. New flows are increasingly Asian. Of the immigrants who arrived in California between 2012 and 2016, 58% came from Asia. Just 28% came from Latin America.3 By comparison, in the rest of the United States, 38% came from Asia and 40% from Latin America. The origins of immigration to California have become increasingly diversified, making the state more like other major states that have immigration with diverse origins, such as New York.

Figure 1.1. Foreign-born share of California and U.S. populations, 1870–2017 Sources: 1870–2010 Decennial Census; 2017 American Community Survey (IPUMS).

Figure 1.2. California’s immigrants by region of origin, 1900–2017

Source: Analysis of 1900–2017 Decennial Census and American Community Survey data (1% IPUMS).

Table 1.1. Twenty principal immigrant countries of origin in California, 2017

Source: Analysis of 2017 American Community Survey data (1% IPUMS).

Immigrants live throughout California’s fifty-eight counties, but are concentrated in a few major metropolitan areas. The largest populations are in metropolitan Los Angeles–Long Beach–Anaheim, where 42% of the state’s immigrants reside, followed by metropolitan San Francisco–Oakland (14%), Riverside–San Bernardino (9%), San Diego (7%), and San Jose (7%). These five metropolitan areas account for 78.9% of the foreign-born population, compared to just 67.6% of the native-born population. Map 1.1 shows the number of immigrants in each county in California.

Map 1.1. Number of immigrants in California, by county (in thousands), 2017 Source: 2013–2017 American Community Survey data provided by Migration Policy Institute.

Fourteen percent of California’s population are naturalized U.S. citizens. An estimated 7.6% are noncitizens with some kind of authorized status, such as legal permanent residency.4 An estimated 5.6% of the population (20% of immigrants) are unauthorized.5 Once again, there is a mismatch between the group that attracts the most heated political debate—unauthorized immigrants—and the dominant demographic pattern.

Although immigration can lead to major impacts on host states’ school systems, California’s immigrants are older on average than its native-born population, highlighting the importance of immigrants in the labor force. The median age for its immigrants is 47.4 years, compared to just 30.2 years for natives. Figure 1.3 shows that the major difference in the populations is that immigrants are much more concentrated in the working ages of the thirties to sixties than those born in California. Only 6% of the immigrant population is age zero to twenty, compared to 34% of natives. California’s immigrants skew slightly female, representing 52.1% of the immigrant population. By contrast, females are only 49.7% of the native-born population.6

Figure 1.3. Age distribution of California’s population, by nativity, 2017

Source: Analysis of 2017 American Community Survey data (1% IPUMS).

As in the United States as a whole, California’s immigrants include people with the highest and lowest levels of education. Figure 1.4 shows that among immigrants, 18% have a bachelor’s degree, and 11% have an advanced degree. The biggest difference between the native and foreign-born populations is that 32% of immigrants have less than a high school education, compared to 8% of the native-born.

Figure 1.4. Educational composition of California’s population, 2017

Source: Analysis of 2017 American Community Survey data (1% IPUMS).

California has always been much more of an immigrant society than the United States as a whole. The nearly eleven million immigrants defy simple categorization, but several major patterns appear. The immigrant population tends to be older and more urbanized, and have either very high or very low levels of formal education. The origins of the foreign born have shifted through three major phases in response to racist policies and changes in the economy. From primarily European and Asian sources in the nineteenth century, immigration shifted to a pattern dominated by Latin Americans during the mid-twentieth century. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the origins had become increasingly global. Asian immigration grew as a consequence of policy reforms in 1965 that ended the national-origins quota system. Political debates in the state have often lagged these new realities or focused on small parts of the immigrant population. Controversies in recent decades (explained in Chapter 3) have focused on unauthorized Latino immigrants and the schooling of children. In reality, most immigrants have legal status and are working-age adults, and new flows are mostly Asian.

Table 1.2. Immigrant share of population by state, 2017

Source: American Community Survey (downloaded from IPUMS).

The “Next Californias”

California is not the only state receiving or having received large numbers of immigrants. Although it is the leader, other states have long been major destinations for immigrants, and the 1990s and 2000s saw the emergence of “new gateways” of immigration, especially in the South, but in other states as well (Waters and Jiménez 2005). Table 1.2 and figure 1.5 provide some insight into which states are furthest along the road to being a “Next California”—with comparable diversity created from immigration—showing four tiers based on the percentage in each state who are foreign born. The top tier, where the foreign born make up 15%–30% of the population, is mostly coastal, with New Jersey, New York, Florida, and Hawaii joining California, with the one non-coastal exception being Nevada. The next tier, where immigrants make up 10%–15% of the population, is also coastal, with the exception of Illinois and Arizona. As figure 1.5 shows, the states in the two lower tiers, where immigrants make up less than 10% of the population, are concentrated in the Rust Belt, South, and Northern Plains.

Figure 1.5. Map of immigrant share of population by state, 2017

Source: American Community Survey (downloaded from IPUMS).

Another way to assess which states are likely to be the Next Californias is to examine where immigration is increasing at the fastest rates (see table 1.3 and figure 1.6). Here we have five tiers to take into account the fact that in some states, immigrants’ share of the population is declining. This rate-of-change portrait, which focuses on change from 2009 to 2017, has some striking differences from the existing population percentages, and highlights some states where immigrants make up a small but rapidly growing part of the population, suggesting likely political or economic impacts.

Table 1.3. States by growth in immigrant population, 2009–2017

Source: American Community Survey (downloaded from IPUMS).

One fact that jumps out is that although California has a large and growing immigrant population, it is in the slowest-growth tier, with only about 8% growth in this time period. Much more dramatic are several states with historically low levels of immigration that are experiencing rapid growth in their immigrant populations, such as North Dakota (nearly 69%), Nebraska (about 40%), and Vermont (almost 32%). These states, though far from being Next Californias, may be experiencing enriching but possibly disruptive diversification in particular towns or regions, with local politics, economies, schools, and health systems affected. On the other end of the growth spectrum, several states have seen a decline in their immigrant populations, and these states are not known for being distinctively hostile to immigrants. New Mexico (9% decline), Idaho (a bit more than 4%), and Wisconsin lead the states where immigrants are leaving, and a California-like future is becoming less likely.

Figure 1.6. Map of states by growth in immigrant population, 2009–2017

Source: American Community Survey (downloaded from IPUMS).


1. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, International Migration Report 2017: Highlights, 2017,

2. Source: Analysis of 2017 American Community Survey data (1% IPUMS).

3. Public Policy Institute of California, “Immigrants in California,” 2019,

4. Source: Analysis of 2017 American Community Survey data (1% IPUMS).

5. Pew Research Center, “U.S. Unauthorized Immigrant Population Estimates by State, 2016,” February 5, 2019,

6. Source: Analysis of 2017 American Community Survey data (1% IPUMS).