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Blog Post · May 7, 2024

How Has California’s Immigrant Population Changed over Time?

This blog post is the fourth in a series celebrating PPIC’s 30th anniversary.

photo - Family of Four Portrait

California has long been the leading destination for immigrants coming to the United States seeking refuge, economic opportunity, and a better quality of life. But the state’s primacy as a destination has waned over the past 30 years, and California has experienced significant shifts in its immigrant population. Because immigrants and their children are a critical component of the state’s population, these shifts have led to broad changes in California’s demographic landscape.

To be clear, California’s immigrant population is still growing. But that growth has slowed significantly in the past 30 years. From 1990 to 2022 the state’s foreign-born population grew 61%, reaching 10.4 million. While this increase is substantial, over the previous 30 years (from 1960 to 1990) the immigrant population grew 381%—from 1.3 million to 6.5 million.

California still leads all other states in both the number of immigrants and their share of the population. But our share has declined from 33% in 1990 to 23% in 2022.

Immigrants in California today are more settled and established than they were in 1990. They are much more likely to be naturalized citizens (54% in 2022 vs. 31% in 1990), have lived in the US longer (62% have lived in the US for over 20 years compared to 22% in 1990), and are more likely to speak English (42% speak only English or speak English very well, compared to 24% in 1990).

Of particular note has been the growth of the second generation—that is, children born to immigrants. This generation grew 73% from 1994 to 2023, compared to an overall population increase of 27%, according to the Current Population Survey. By 2023, immigrants and their children made up over half (52%) of the state’s population.

One of the most notable changes has been the diversification of the immigrant population. Prior to 1990, most recently arrived immigrants were from Latin America, with Mexico the leading country by far.  In the past couple decades, immigrants from Asia have made up the largest group of recent arrivals, and China, India, and the Philippines are now the leading countries of origin.

This shift in the origins of California's immigrants has been accompanied by changes in their socioeconomic characteristics. Asian immigrants, on average, tend to have higher levels of education and income compared to their Latin American counterparts. Still, prime working-age immigrants from every region are more likely to have at least a bachelor’s degree now compared to 1990, especially recent arrivals.

This shift has contributed to a more varied economic landscape in the state, with immigrants playing key roles in industries ranging from technology and healthcare to agriculture and service sectors. In turn, median incomes in California have risen faster among foreign-born than US born residents since 1990.

These demographic changes have varied across the state; however, every region in California has seen an increase in its immigrant population over the last 30 years. And while foreign-born populations are still large in counties such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, immigrants now make up a higher share of the local populations in Santa Clara, San Mateo, and Alameda Counties. Furthermore, recent growth has been significantly higher in counties where immigrant shares were previously relatively low, such as Contra Costa, Sacramento, San Bernardino, and San Joaquin.

Looking ahead, California's immigrant population is likely to continue growing in response to global economic, social, and political forces. The state's policies related to its immigrant population, such as providing access to healthcare and expanding educational opportunities, will help to determine the future of this diverse population. California’s immigrants, in turn, will continue to play a key role in shaping our state’s dynamic cultural, political, and economic landscape.


Immigrants in California immigration Population PPIC 30th anniversary