News that California has grown to 38.2 million people—the largest population increase in nine years according to the state Department of Finance—garnered a lot of attention. But this increase was actually modest, even slow, when compared to most years before 2005. However, there has been a much more dramatic demographic shift, pinpointed in data from the American Community Survey—a rise in Asian immigration and a decline in Latin American immigration. In 2011 and 2012, three times as many immigrants arrived from Asia as from Latin America.
For decades, Latin America immigrants were by far the largest group coming to California. Even as recently as 2005, 55 percent of all immigrants and 51 percent of those migrating within the past year were from Latin America. However, since then, the number of newly arriving immigrants from Latin America has declined sharply, while the number from Asia has increased.
What accounts for this dramatic change? During the recession, employment prospects for less educated workers fell dramatically and have not recovered as quickly as prospects for more highly educated workers. While only about 14 percent of recent immigrants from Latin America have a college degree, immigrants from Asia tend to be highly educated. About half of working-age Asian adults (ages 18–64) already have college degrees when they arrive in California. In that regard, then, the changing patterns of immigration make sense.
But other factors are undoubtedly at work. Increases in border enforcement and deportations are more likely to affect immigrants from Latin America than from Asia. And improved economic conditions in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, along with slowing population growth, reduces the supply of potential immigrants to California. Still, it will be interesting to see if this new pattern of immigration to California becomes the new normal. If so, in the long run it would lead to a substantial change in the ethnic composition of the state’s population. Just as Latinos are about to surpass whites as the state’s largest ethnic group, perhaps someday Asians will surpass Latinos.