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Blog Post · November 24, 2014

Immigration: What’s Next in California?

More than one million Californians could be affected by President Obama’s executive order on immigration. Undocumented immigrants who have resided continuously in the U.S. for the past five years and are parents of children who are either U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents will be eligible for work permits. They will also be relieved from the threat of deportation. In addition, the executive order increases the number of people eligible to register as “Dreamers” because they were brought to the U.S. as children.

Undocumented immigrants who qualify under the president’s order will likely be able to provide more stable homes and increase their connection to their communities. Californians have already demonstrated that this is what they want for undocumented immigrants. More than 80% of Californians favor providing undocumented immigrants with a pathway to citizenship if they meet background checks, pay back taxes and penalties, and learn English—according to each of the three PPIC Statewide Surveys that asked about this issue in 2014.

California legislators have been leaders in setting policy that helps integrate the undocumented immigrants already in our communities by passing legislation that allows undocumented immigrant youth to pay in-state tuition at our colleges and universities, qualify for state financial aid, and obtain driver’s licenses. Low-income Californians registered as “Dreamers” also qualify for state Medi-Cal.

What happens next depends in large part on the reaction of state and local governments. Knowing where qualified undocumented immigrants live is essential to realizing the potential gains both to the state and to the immigrants themselves. This is challenging. Surveys don’t generally ask about immigration status, so most of what we know about this population derives from complicated estimates of immigration status.

Here, we present counts of undocumented immigrants who have filed federal tax returns without social security numbers (instead using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, or ITINs) and with wage forms (W-2s) attached. We believe this is a reasonable way to broadly determine who will be affected by President Obama’s executive order. Undocumented immigrant tax payers are more likely to have been in the U.S. longer and are likely to be the most intent on making the U.S. their permanent home. By filing taxes, they have already taken steps to identify themselves as contributing members of their communities and the economy.

A few caveats—while we are certain that each of the immigrants we identify in this fashion are undocumented, this method probably does not count all undocumented immigrants who may be eligible for the order. Probably not all undocumented immigrant tax payers use ITIN numbers, and not all undocumented immigrants file tax returns. Further, not all undocumented immigrants using ITIN numbers will be eligible for the order.

We find that California has over 900,000 undocumented immigrants filing federal tax returns for the 2012 tax year, the most recent year data is available. These undocumented immigrants live in 55 of our 58 counties, with large numbers in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, the Sacramento region, the Central Valley, coastal California, and the Inland Empire. This information can be useful to local legal service providers and local governments to help plan for the registration of eligible undocumented immigrants, the most critical first step in implementing the president’s order.

Of course, county populations are not homogeneous—a closer look reveals sharp differences in the number of ITIN filings by zip code, even within counties. The map below shows high numbers of undocumented immigrants in rural regions (large-area zip codes), as well as in city and suburban centers (small-area zip codes). In Riverside County, for instance, undocumented workers are found in high numbers in the urban areas in the west, as well as in the agricultural region around the Coachella Valley.

President Obama has made it clear that those eligible for deportation relief under this new executive order are ineligible for health care subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. But, as in the past, California may wish to do more—for example, providing Medi-Cal coverage to qualifying adults and doing more to reach out to their already eligible children. In addition, upward mobility is most likely for immigrants obtaining work permits if they make investments in English language acquisition. NGOs, community college districts, and school districts that still provide adult education could use the information about where undocumented immigrants live to plan course offerings in the years to come.


immigration Population undocumented immigrants