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  • Recent immigrants are more likely than US-born Californians to be college graduates.
    In 2016, 51% of working-age immigrants (aged 25 to 64) who had lived in California for five years or less had bachelor’s or graduate degrees, while 10% had minimal formal education (middle school or less). Educational attainment among newly arrived adult immigrants has increased markedly since 1980, when 15% had graduated from college and 37% had minimal formal education. In fact, recent immigrants have had bigger gains than US-born residents: the share of college graduates among US-born Californians increased from 21% in 1980 to 37% in 2016.

Recent immigrants are more likely than other Californians to have bachelor’s and graduate degrees

figure - Recent immigrants are more likely than other Californians to have bachelor’s and graduate degrees

SOURCE: 2016 American Community Survey, adults age 25 to 64.

  • Most recent immigrants are from Asia—and a majority of Asian immigrants are college educated.
    In 2016, 59% of newly arrived immigrants were from Asia, more than twice the share from Latin America (26%). The majority (56%) of Asian immigrant adults have at least a bachelor’s degree. Immigrants from India are the fastest growing and best-educated group in California: the immigrant population from India has increased 478% since 1990, and 77% of these immigrants have college degrees.
  • California increasingly depends on immigrants to meet demand for highly educated workers …
    Immigrants make up about 30% of California workers with at least a bachelor’s degree, up from only 8% in 1950. Highly educated immigrants work in every major industry in the state and are especially well-represented in the technology and health sectors. Almost half (49%) of college graduates in computer and data processing services are immigrants, as are 60% of college graduates in nursing and personal care.

The share of immigrants among California workers with college degrees has grown

Figure - The share of immigrants among California workers with college degrees has grown

SOURCES: 2016 American Community Survey; decennial censuses, employed workers.

NOTE: The figure shows employed California residents with at least a bachelor’s degree.

  • … but the state economy continues to rely on immigrants with little formal education.
    In 2016, 32% of working-age immigrants in California had not graduated from high school, compared to 7% of US-born Californians. An additional 20% of immigrants in California finished high school but did not attend college, similar to US-born residents (21%). Immigrants make up a large share of workers in industries that require little formal education, including agricultural production and the hospitality industry.
  • Strong educational progress occurs across generations.
    The children of immigrants in California and in the nation as a whole tend to be much better educated than their parents. About three in four (74%) first-generation immigrants age 57 to 66 have graduated from high school, compared to 93% of second-generation Californians aged 30 to 39. Educational attainment among second generation Californians is similar to that of other US-born residents.
  • Most Californians are concerned about the impact of federal immigration enforcement.
    Three-quarters of Californians (76%) are concerned about the impact of federal immigration enforcement on undocumented college and university students—including those covered by the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) policy. The level of concern is particularly high among those born outside the US (81%). Similarly, seven in ten Californians are concerned about the impact of enforcement on K–12 students in their local public schools. Two in three support their local school district designating itself a “sanctuary safe zone.”


Sources: American Community Survey; decennial censuses; Current Population Surveys, PPIC Statewide Survey, November 2017, April 2018.

In September, the Trump administration announced an end to the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which includes protections for some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Under DACA, those who qualify and pass a background check can receive protection from deportation and a work permit. California is home to about 223,000 DACA recipients—more than one-fourth of the national total.

The administration and Congress have been negotiating a potential compromise that would preserve DACA protections for qualifying individuals. In January, the PPIC Statewide Survey found that 85% of adults and 81% of likely voters in California favor the protections offered by DACA. Recent surveys by ABC/Washington Post and CNN have found similarly high levels of support for DACA among adults nationwide. In California, support has increased slightly since September, when three-quarters of adults and likely voters were in favor of DACA protections.

In today’s politically polarized environment, it is notable that majorities of California Democrats, Republicans, and independents support the DACA program. In PPIC’s January survey, we find that while Republicans are less likely than Democrats and independents to support DACA protections, a solid majority (58%) are in favor. Indeed, DACA has a high level of support across the state’s regions and demographic groups, with at least three in four adults in favor. Results were similar in September, when strong majorities across parties and at least seven in ten across demographic and regional groups expressed support.

The high levels of support for DACA are perhaps unsurprising given Californians’ shifting attitudes toward immigrants. In PPIC’s September survey, three in four Californians (76%) said that immigrants are a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills—a high mark in PPIC surveys. Only 20% said immigrants are a burden because they use public services. Indeed, Californians are now far more likely to see immigrants as a benefit than they were in April 1998 when we first asked this question (46% benefit, 42% burden).

Interestingly, this shift in attitudes is not unique to California. In a June 2017 survey of adults nationwide, the Pew Research Center found that 65% of adults thought immigrants strengthened the country, while 26% felt immigrants burdened the country. This is a stark contrast to 1994, when only 31% of adults nationwide felt immigrants strengthened the country and 63% said they were a burden. As the debate on DACA and immigration policy continues, looking at changes in public attitudes on this issue can highlight areas of potential compromise for policymakers.


Less than four months before the June primary, Democrats Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa are in a virtual tie among likely voters in the gubernatorial race. But a quarter of likely voters are undecided—as many as support either of the front-runners in the top-two contest. In the US Senate race, Dianne Feinstein continues to lead fellow Democrat Kevin de León by double digits, with a third of likely voters undecided.

These are among the key findings in the January PPIC Statewide Survey, presented by researcher Lunna Lopes at a Sacramento briefing last week.

Among other highlights of the survey:

  • Likely voters are divided on two ideas that may be on the fall ballot: repeal of the recently passed increase in the state gasoline tax and a change in the strict limits on commercial property taxes imposed by Proposition 13. Under the property tax proposal, commercial properties would be taxed according to their fair market value but limits on residential property taxes would remain in place.
  • Most Californians favor the governor’s proposed budget and believe the governor and legislature will be able to work together and accomplish a lot. However, expectations of cooperation are low for the president and Congress.
  • Many Californians closely following news about sexual misconduct in the state legislature, and they are divided about how Democratic leaders are handling this issue so far.
  • Californians are most likely to name immigration as the top issue facing the state today, and majorities across parties favor the DACA protections.

Learn moreRead the January PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government
Find out more about the PPIC Statewide Survey


    • California is home to more than two million undocumented immigrants.
      Undocumented (also known as illegal or unauthorized) immigrants are not directly identified in any representative national or state surveys. But the best estimates suggest that in 2014, the year of the most recent data available, California was home to between 2.35 and 2.6 million undocumented immigrants. Nearly a quarter of the nation’s undocumented immigrants reside in California, where they constitute more than 6% of the state’s population. Nationally, the undocumented population has stabilized at approximately 11 million, following a slight decline after 2007. A combination of increased enforcement, voluntary returns, and fewer new migrants has increased the average length of residence in the United States, with 66% of undocumented immigrants having lived here for 10 or more years.

The undocumented population in California appears to be declining

Figure 1

SOURCES: Annual estimates of the undocumented population by Robert Warren, working alone or with the Center for Migration Studies, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Pew Research Center.

    • Most undocumented immigrants are from Latin America.
      Nationwide, 78% of undocumented immigrants are from Latin America—a slight majority (52%) come from Mexico alone. Most of the others (13%) are from Asia, although Africa and Europe also account for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the US. The Pew Research Center (PRC) estimates that as of 2014, 71% of California’s undocumented population was Mexican-born.
    • Nearly one in ten California workers is an undocumented immigrant.
      California’s labor force includes about 1.75 million undocumented immigrants, according to the PRC. This is the second-highest statewide concentration of undocumented workers (9.0%) in the US after Nevada (10.4%). Undocumented immigrants work disproportionately in agriculture, construction, and manufacturing.
    • Many undocumented immigrants live with family members who are citizens.
      More than 5 million children in the US have an undocumented parent, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, and most of these children (79%) are US citizens. It is likely that 12.3% of California’s K–12 school children have an undocumented parent, according to PRC estimates. Nationally, more than 750,000 young people have received deportation relief and work permits through a federal program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which confers legal status upon those who came to the US as undocumented children. More than 200,000 DACA recipients live in California, according to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The future of the DACA program is very much uncertain. President Trump has sent mixed signals, while some members of Congress have vowed to fight for the program.
    • Counties vary in their sanctuary policies for undocumented immigrants.
      Some California city and county leaders have stated that they will provide sanctuary for undocumented immigrants—this refers to limiting local assistance to federal immigration enforcement. However, no sanctuary policy can universally prevent deportations. Further, county jails provide the FBI with fingerprints from all bookings, which the FBI then sends to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Even if individual cities have a sanctuary policy, county law enforcement supersedes city policies if undocumented immigrants are placed in county jails.

Populations of undocumented immigrants vary across counties

Figure 2

SOURCES: Authors’ calculations using IRS tax data from the Brookings Institution, population data from the American Community Survey, and statewide undocumented population estimates from the Center for Migration Studies. These 2013 estimates are PPIC’s most recent estimates. Estimates for the state by Center for Migration Studies suggest a slight decline from 2013 to 2014 (2.6%).

  • A majority of Californians back a path to legal status.
    Since January 2016, the PPIC Statewide Survey has asked Californians four times whether “there should be a way for [undocumented immigrants] to stay in the country legally, if certain requirements are met.” Each time, 82% or more have supported this idea. In January 2017, 65% of adults favored the idea of “California state and local governments making their own policies and taking actions, separate from the federal government, to protect the legal rights of undocumented immigrants in California,” but support varied widely along party lines: 80% of Democrats, 27% of Republicans, and 59% of independents.


Sources: State-level estimates come from the Pew Research Center, Department of Homeland Security, Robert Warren, Center for Migration Studies, and Migration Policy Institute. County-level estimates are the authors’ calculations using IRS tax data from the Brookings Institution, population data from the American Community Survey, and statewide undocumented population estimates from the Center for Migration Studies. Survey results are from the PPIC Statewide Survey.

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