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Press Release · July 22, 2009

California’s Popularity Fading for New Immigrants

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 22, 2009 — California’s popularity as a destination for immigrants has declined significantly, a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) shows. In a shift that began in the late 1990s and has accelerated this decade, new arrivals to the U.S. have increasingly chosen to live in states with little history of immigration.

California’s immigrant population is still the largest in the nation and continues to increase, but that growth has slowed. The percentage of immigrants choosing to live in the state fell by 7 points between 1990 and 2007, from 33 percent of the nation’s immigrants in 1990 to 26 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Census data analyzed in the study. While California’s working-age immigrant population grew 9.5 percent per year from 1980–1990, it increased by just 4.4 percent annually from 1990–2000, and just 2 percent annually from 2000–2007.

This trend is mirrored within the state, with immigrants increasingly likely to settle outside traditional immigrant enclaves. Although Los Angeles is home to far more immigrants than any other county in California, its immigrant population grew by just 1.8 percent per year between 1990 and 2007, compared to 11.9 percent growth per year in Riverside County and 9.9 percent in Kern County.

These demographic shifts have policy implications at the federal, state, and local level because many communities are confronting issues of integrating immigrants for the first time.

What is driving the change? Immigrants have traditionally chosen to live near others from their home countries. But these cultural ties, while still powerful, have waned in importance for Latinos and Asians, who make up 70 percent of new immigrants.

“Many immigrants—particularly Latinos—are moving to new destinations that have less established social networks but growing economic opportunities,” says Sarah Bohn, PPIC research fellow and author of the study. “Immigrants are increasingly likely to base their decisions about where to live on wages and jobs.”

Because there is no comprehensive data that allows researchers to identify immigration status, the PPIC study includes both documented and undocumented immigrants.

Among its key findings:

  • California’s decline in popularity as a destination is largely a result of new immigrants’ decisions to move directly to other states, as opposed to established immigrants leaving California.
  • Latino immigrants are much less likely to move to California now than in 1990.
  • Immigrants employed in construction, manufacturing, and some service industries are less likely to choose to live in California than they were in 1990.
  • New immigrants to California have higher levels of education on average than in 2000 or 1990.
  • Wages and jobs play a strong role in where Latinos and Asians decide to locate. There is no evidence that the generosity of welfare programs affects their choices.
  • Economic opportunities play an even stronger role in the relocation decisions of highly educated Latino and Asian new immigrants. This suggests that California’s ability to attract highly skilled immigrants to its workforce is linked to economic conditions here relative to other states.
  • Alameda, San Bernardino, Riverside, Kern, and Sacramento Counties have been the fastest-growing immigrant populations since 1990. The growth in Alameda and Sacramento Counties has come predominantly from an increase in new immigrant arrivals, while growth in Riverside and San Bernardino stems more from relocation by more established immigrants, mainly from Los Angeles County. Kern County has seen a little growth of new immigrant arrivals and a larger wave of relocation by established immigrants.
  • Immigrants’ migration patterns increasingly mirror the patterns of native-born residents. Some researchers have found that in the recent past, native-born residents tended to move out when immigrants moved in, but the PPIC analysis finds this is not the case for California.

This study, New Patterns of Immigrant Settlement in California, was supported with funding from The Ford Foundation and the Research Foundation of the City University of New York, and is available for free download from the PPIC website,


The Public Policy Institute of California is dedicated to informing and improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett. As a private operating foundation, PPIC does not take or support positions on any ballot measure or on any local, state, or federal legislation, nor does it endorse, support, or oppose any political parties or candidates for public office.