The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. From the first colonists in the 16th century, to the millions who came through Ellis Island from the 19th to the 20th, to the current wave of political refugees seeking asylum, this country has long been a haven, a landing spot, and an aspiration.
In total, the U.S. houses about 44 million immigrants, which accounts for about 13.6% of the population. Overseeing and managing such high numbers of foreign-born residents has always presented a political challenge. Immigration laws have changed dramatically through the years, and with the November election of Donald Trump as president, might do so again in the near future. And as the 2016 election cycle made very clear, when it comes to immigration, the rhetoric of the republic hasn’t always been welcoming.
We wanted to go beyond the stereotypes and generalizations. Who exactly are these immigrants, and where, specifically, are they headed? Which American cities are most attractive to new residents? And why?
Using data from the U.S. Census’s American Community Survey, we found the eight U.S. cities who accepted the greatest number of new international faces between 2013 and 2015. Using the survey’s definition of “foreign-born population” as anyone who was not a U.S. citizen or national at birth, whether they’re in the country legally or illegally, we took a closer look. We wanted to see not only which cities were accepting the most immigrants, but also who those immigrants are and how they are interacting with their new homes.
NEW YORK–NEWARK–JERSEY CITY, NY–NJ–PA
Home to Ellis Island — the “gateway to the New World” between 1892 and 1954 — the New York area saw the highest number of new immigrants between 2013 and 2015 of any U.S. city. With nearly 500,000 immigrants arriving in that time frame, the New York-Newark-Jersey City metropolitan statistical area’s total immigrant population is now about 4.5 million. That’s more than the total population of Los Angeles and represents a substantial proportion of the MSA’s total population of 20.2 million.
It’s not difficult to imagine why so many U.S.-bound immigrants land in the New York area: It’s awash with opportunity, nicknamed the Capital of the World, and has a long history of welcoming immigrants (12 million walked through Ellis Island’s gates). The Big Apple is where many American-born citizens move to pursue their dreams, so it’s no surprise that it would also be a top choice for those willing to leave their home country in search of opportunity.
So who are these immigrants? According to Census data, immigrants who have moved to the New York-Newark-Jersey City MSA since 2010 hail mainly from South Central and Eastern Asia and the Caribbean, are well-educated, and have young families. Of the more than 2 million school-aged immigrants, nearly 35% are in kindergarten through 8th grade, and 42.4% are in college. Of those over age 25, 44.4% have a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree — as compared to the MSA’s average of 38.4% — and another 14.4% have had some college education.
Although the New York MSA’s average unemployment was 6.5% of the labor force, immigrants saw a 9.7% unemployment rate. Those who were employed — largely in management, business, science, and arts occupations (34.5%), with many in service (29.3%) and sales (16.7%) occupations as well — earned about 78% of what a native-born resident earned, which is surprisingly the third-highest earning ratio in this list.
Los Angeles–Long Beach–Anaheim, CA
The City of Angels is also the city of immigrants, with a total foreign-born population of over 4.5 million. Of the 444,463 who have entered since 2010, a whopping 58.1% have come from Asia. According to The Migration Policy Institute, the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim MSA is the No. 1 destination in the country for immigrants from the Philippines, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan, as well as the No. 3 destination for immigrants from China and Hong Kong. The MSA’s other main source of immigration is Latin America, with most of the immigrant population from 2010 to 2016 hailing from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
According to USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, Los Angeles County is the second most immigrant-friendly county in the state. The county scored particularly well when it came to depictions of immigrants in the media and civic infrastructure for naturalization. Los Angeles is a decentralized, sprawling city, and its sheer geographic spread allows immigrant communities in the metro area ample space to establish cultural pockets — or ethnic enclaves — at a scale exceeding some other immigrant-friendly cities. Chinatown, Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, Little Moscow, Tehrangeles — the list is long and varied. Such strong communities provide a safe haven and attractive landing point for new immigrants, as well as economic stability for established businesses.
But according to USC’s study, ethnic enclaves might also be to blame for linguistic isolation: In 34% of LA immigrant households no one over 14 speaks English only, or very well. The study also points out that though the economic trajectory of Los Angeles’s immigrants trends upward over time, it still lags behind the rest of the population. That jibes with our data. According to the Census’ American Community Survey, 10.4% of immigrants who moved from abroad since 2010 in the MSA are unemployed, the highest such figure on our list. And at $40,895 (only 65.39% of the area median income), the household median income for recent immigrants is the second-lowest on our list. As the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration puts it, “Los Angeles’ dynamic and large immigrant population makes integration both possible and difficult. On the one hand, immigrants find upward economic mobility over time; on the other, the continuous flow of migrants into a struggling regional economy depresses the economic outcomes of the group as a whole.”
Miami–Fort Lauderdale–West Palm Beach, FL
With almost 84% of new arrivals coming from Latin America, Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach’s immigrant population since 2010 is the least varied of any of the cities on this list. Nearly 50% of immigrants hail from the Caribbean, which makes sense: Miami has long been one of the nation’s busiest port cities, with strong ties to Cuba and the West Indies.
Foreign-born citizens make up a whopping 56.4% of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach population, for a total immigrant population that trails only New York-Newark-Jersey City and Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim on our list. And Miami proper is one of several American cities where an ethnic minority makes up a majority of the population. According to the U.S. Census, Miami-Dade County has the highest concentration of Cubans, Hondurans, Peruvians, and Colombians in the entire country.
That translates to a vibrant, immigrant-friendly city that proudly displays its cultural heritage. Carnaval Miami, which culminates in El Festival de la Calle Ocho, is one of the largest celebrations of pan-American Latin culture in the world. One of the highest-circulation newspapers in Florida, Miami’s El Nuevo Herald, is printed in Spanish, and the city is filled with immigrant-advocacy organizations like The Florida Immigrant Coalition, “a statewide alliance of more than 62 member organizations, including farmworkers, students, service providers, grassroots organizations and legal advocates.”
For all that, there are areas — education and median income — where the Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach MSA lags behind some of the other immigrant-rich cities on this list. New immigrants to the MSA are the least likely to have earned bachelor’s or graduate degrees of any city on this list, and 29.6% only got as far as a high school diploma. That’s no mean feat! But in an economy that increasingly requires a college degree, it could explain why the median household income for recent immigrants was the lowest on this list, and only 70.16% of the Miami MSA’s median income.
Our nation’s capital has long been an attractive destination for new arrivals. Where better to start life in a new country than in its diplomatic center? It’s fitting that the D.C. metro area, home to Embassy Row and 177 foreign missions, displays the most diversified immigrant population figures of any city on our list. Since 2010, no single region has provided the majority of the D.C. area’s immigrants, and though Asia and Latin America display typically strong numbers, only New York-Newark-Jersey City accepted more African immigrants. Almost 20% of the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria MSA’s total from 2010 to 2015 hail from the continent.
African immigration to the United States has increased dramatically over the past 45 years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the total African-born population has doubled roughly every 10 years, with the most explosive growth coming between 2000 and 2012: Over that span, the population increased from 881,300 to 1.6 million. In the DMV — as locals call the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area — the majority of those immigrants are from Ethiopia and Ghana. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria MSA is the No. 1 destination in the country for Ethiopians and No. 2 for Ghanaians. Immigrants from both countries began traveling to the U.S. in the ‘50s and ‘60s to study and do business, and many from Ethiopia stayed after a civil war broke out in that country in 1974.
Several acts of Congress — The Refugee Act of 1980 and The Diversity Visa Act of 1990 — made it easier for African immigrants to immigrate to the U.S., and over time those immigrants established strong, tightly-knit business communities in a notoriously expensive city. The median income for recent immigrants to the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria MSA is $65,479. That’s good for second-highest on this list, but it’s stills only 70.1% of the area figure. Similarly, though the MSA’s unemployment rate for recent immigrants is the second-lowest on our list, at 7.8% it’s still well above the MSA’s rate of 5.1% over the same time period, as well as the current national rate of 4.9%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Houston–The Woodlands–Sugar Land, TX
Houston is the fifth-largest MSA in the country, with the fourth-highest immigrant population. Like New York-Newark-Jersey City and Boston-Cambridge-Newton, no single region of the world has a majority — instead, the immigrant population since 2010 is diversified and wide-ranging, befitting a cosmopolitan city whose general population, as of the 2010 census, exhibits no single ethnic majority.
Given its geographical location in the Southwest, it’s perhaps understandable that Latin Americans — predominantly immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras — comprise the largest immigrant population in the Houston metro area, with over 45% of the total since 2010. But the city is also home to a robust Asian immigrant population — according to the 2010 census, the Houston metro area had the ninth highest population of Asian Americans in the country, and nearly a third of the city’s recent immigrants are Asian. The metro area boasts the third-highest concentration of Vietnamese immigrants in the country. Houston also has a robust African immigrant population, accounting for almost 12% of immigrants since 2010. In fact, according to The National Center for Immigration Policy, Houston has the second-highest population of Nigerians in the United States.
Among school-age children, the Houston MSA exhibits a high percentage (41.7%) in grades K-8, which suggests that the immigrant population is more family-dominated than some of the other cities on this list. And though the percentage of recent immigrants with no high school degree is 23.6%, the highest on our list, the median income of $49,949 is over 81% of the area median income — a percentage second only to San Francisco.
Although the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin metropolitan area is the third most-populated in the nation, it takes the No. 6 spot on our list. Between 2013 and 2015, the Chicago area welcomed nearly 170,000 immigrants — slightly more than half of what Los Angeles did in the same time frame. It’s the hub of the Midwest, the largest city in the region, and it’s rife with career opportunities. In passing the Welcoming City Ordinance in 2012, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the city would become “the most immigrant-friendly city in the world.”
The data paints a vivid picture of the nearly 205,000 foreign-born individuals who have moved into the Chicago area since 2010. A typical recent immigrant is about 30 years old, of Asian or Latin American descent (primarily from Central and Eastern Asia and Mexico), and likely pursuing an education. More than half of the school-aged population is currently in college, and another 15.4% are in high school, while 30% are still in kindergarten through 8th grade.
Of all cities on this list, the Chicago area has the highest percent of foreign-born individuals with a bachelor’s degree — 32.2%. The next closest is the San Francisco area, with 30.1%. In total, 65.9% of Chicago’s immigrant population has at least some college education, and the majority (52.8%) have earned a bachelor’s, professional, or graduate degree. Both of those figures are beyond the Chicago-Naperville-Elgin averages, which are 62.1% and 35%, respectively.
Despite the higher-than-average levels of educational attainment, foreign-born unemployment figures are fairly high. The Chicago area’s comparable unemployment rate (from 2015 American Community Survey data) is 7.1%, but for immigrants in the area, it’s up to 8.5%. The vast majority is employed, however, and earns about 75% of the area’s median income, finding jobs in manufacturing (14.4%); professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management (21%); education, health care, and social services (17.3%); and arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (13.1%).
Currently, the city of Chicago is considering an amendment to the Welcoming City Ordinance, which would prohibit police officers and public officials from using immigration status to abuse constituents. The city also recently launched a municipal ID program to ensure all Chicago residents have official identification, and in 2014, saw a 10% drop in undocumented immigrants.
SAN FRANCISCO–OAKLAND–HAYWARD, CA
With nearly 165,000 foreign-born individuals taking up residence in the area between 2013 and 2015, San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward takes seventh place. Its population of 4.7 million includes about 1.4 million immigrants — that’s nearly 30% of the population.
The Public Policy Institute of California notes that the state has more immigrants than any other in the nation. Given the huge foreign-born population, the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California created a scorecard for 10 of the state’s regions using indicators such as civic engagement, warmth of welcome, economic snapshot, and economic trajectory. Considering all of these factors, San Francisco earned a score of 3.1 out of 5. California’s highest-scoring region was Santa Clara, with 4.0, while Los Angeles — No. 2 on our list — earned just 2.6.
Two categories that San Francisco excelled in were warmth of welcome, taking the top spot with 4.4 out of 5, and economic snapshot, with 3.4. Census data shows that immigrants who have moved into the San Francisco MSA since 2010 earn 88.52% of the area’s median income — the highest earning percentage of any city in this list by a margin of more than 7 percentage points. However, immigrants in the San Francisco area have a much higher rate of unemployment than the general population: 8.1% compared with 5.4%. Nearly half of San Francisco’s immigrant population is employed in management, business, science, and arts.
When it comes to education, however, San Francisco’s foreign-born population is keeping pace, with about 70% of individuals age 25 and older attaining at least some college education. Of immigrants since 2010, 54.7% hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with the area average of 47.2%. For school-age immigrants, San Francisco also has the second-highest rate of college enrollment in this list, with 56.7% currently pursuing a college education, and another 40.4% between kindergarten in high school. Another education component that distinguishes the San Francisco area is the percentage of adults who have not earned a high school degree. With the lowest percent of any city on the list, just 14.2% of those age 25 and older have no high school diploma.
Despite popular rhetoric about a deluge of Mexican immigrants in California and border states, the majority of those who immigrated to the San Francisco area since 2010 have been from Eastern, Central, and Southeastern Asia (60.1%) — namely China, Vietnam, and the Philippines — followed by Mexico (8.9%), and Northern and Western Europe (7.8%).
The Boston-Cambridge-Newton MSA has some of the most distinct demographics of any city in our list, drawing nearly 162,000 between 2013 and 2015. A relatively small immigrant population of just 873,000 — just over half of San Francisco’s — is drawn to the Boston area’s unsurpassed educational opportunities, including Harvard University, Berklee College of Music, and Boston University.
By far, the immigrant population that moved to the Boston area since 2010 is the most education-focused. Sixty-four percent of school-age individuals are currently enrolled in college, adding credence to the idea that the area’s great universities are the primary motivator for recent immigrants. Of those age 25 or older, 65.2% have had at least some college education, and 28.6% hold a graduate or professional degree — again trumping all cities on this list and surpassing the area’s average of 20.8%.
Despite all of this education, 8.7% of Boston-area immigrants in the labor force are unemployed, compared with just 5.3% of the entire population. And those employed earn a measly 63.97% of the area’s median income, the poorest earning ratio on the list, in management, business, science, and art; service; and sales and office occupations.
The areas of origin are also a bit atypical of what we’ve seen so far. Foreign-born populated generally emigrated from Eastern Asia (17.4%), the Caribbean (13.3%), South Central Asia (13%), South America (11.7%), and Africa (10.5%), displaying a uniquely wide distribution.
We hear it all the time from history professors and politicians alike: The United States is a nation of immigrants, with everyone but Native Americans having an ancestor to thank for taking the leap and migrating to America. And as time goes on, barring any major restrictive reforms, that will only become more true. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, the next 50 years will see increasing immigration: By 2065, one in three Americans will be foreign born (up from a current figure of one in four). And no single ethnicity will constitute more than 50% of the population.
That could all change, of course, if the president-elect’s plans for mass deportations, a freeze on all immigration from “terror-prone” regions, and the construction of a wall along the Mexican border ever come to fruition. If they do, it’s not entirely clear that these measures will reflect the will of the American people, whose views on immigration are changing. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans have an increasingly positive view of immigrants. The last 10 years have seen a decrease in the percentage of the population that believes immigrants hurt the American workforce (55% to 45%), and a substantial increase in the percentage of those who believe immigrants help it (28% to 42%).
And why shouldn’t they? According to the Center for Migration Policy, immigrants to the United States make up 13.5% of the country’s population, but 16.9% of its labor force. And as the data we’ve sifted through here shows, the majority of new immigrants to the United States are employed, educated, and eager to contribute to both the culture and the economy of their new home. There’s no reason why the land of opportunity shouldn’t continue to welcome them with open arms.
We aggregated data from the American Community Survey 1-year estimates from 2013, 2014, and 2015 to calculate the total number of people in each MSA that moved from abroad over those three years. The ACS designates “foreign-born” as anyone not born a U.S. citizen or U.S. national, and the questionnaire does not include immigration status, meaning data includes documented and undocumented immigrants alike. The data for a given year provides an estimate of the number of people who moved from abroad between July of the previous year and July of that year. We restricted our analysis to the 52 MSAs with a 2013 population of at least 1 million and chose the eight MSAs with the highest total number of immigrants to profile.
Once selected, we analyzed characteristics of the populations of each MSA that moved from abroad since 2010, with data from the U.S. Census Bureau. To determine the origins of the foreign-born population in each MSA, we used the total immigrant population from each region and the percent of that population who entered after 2010 to calculate the total number of people who moved from a given region since 2010. We then divided this by the total number of people in the MSA who moved from abroad since 2010. This gave us the percentage of the foreign-born population who moved from abroad since 2010 from each region.
For press inquiries, contact Sam Radbil.