Foreign Born: California has been home to immigrants for generations.

Insights and Analyses

  • Nationwide, California is home to the largest share of immigrants—nearly a quarter according to a 2020 report by Pew Research Center using 2018 data.
  • In 2019, about 27% of the state’s residents were immigrants. A majority of California’s immigrant population were people of color with 49% identifying as Latino, 34% as Asian American, nearly 2% as Black, nearly 2% as Mixed/other, and 0.4% as Pacific Islander.
  • Black immigrants compose a portion of California’s immigrant population despite often being undercounted and underrepresented. As of 2019 in California, approximately 8% of all Black residents in California were immigrants.
  • Among the eligible adult population in California, 78.1% of Black immigrants were naturalized as of 2019.
  • California also had the largest share of undocumented LGBT adults, an estimated 59,600.
  • While the overall number of immigrants in the state are declining, according to the Migration Policy Institute, in 2019, nearly 4 million children in California had at least one immigrant parent.
  • Indigenous migrants are also undercounted and underrepresented as they are often incorrectly lumped into the Latino category. Data collected and mapped by Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (CIELO) and in collaboration with several UCLA centers illustrates the diversity of Indigenous populations residing in Los Angeles. Results of CIELO’s February 2021 survey on undocumented indigenous families receiving mutual aid funds also showed that 65% identified as Zapotec, 9% as K’iche, 8% as Triqui, 6% as Chinantec, 5% as Mixe, and 3% as Mixteco.

Indigenous migrants are often overlooked within the immigrant rights movement; however, the recent increase of indigenous migrants arriving at the border has increased the visibility of these diverse communities and emphasized the need to support indigenous-led migrant organizations that provide critical interpretation and translations services.

The barriers that indigenous migrants from Guatemala face as they attempt to apply for asylum in the U.S are illustrated in a January 2020 New Yorker article, “A translation crisis at the border.” The article recounts the long history of U.S. intervention in the region that has led to oppression, land theft, and genocide that continues to force migration from their homelands. In the past year, 250,000 Guatemalan migrants, at least half being Mayan, were detained at the border, fleeing death squads, femicide, corruption, and climate change.

Mistranslation has been a critical issue facing indigenous migrants as many speak little to no Spanish and the lack of adequate interpretation services by the U.S. government has forced migrants to be more susceptible to waiving their asylum rights, separating from their children, and not accessing critical health services that can make all the difference between life and death. The New Yorker article cites Department of Justice (DOJ) data reporting that Mam, K’iche’, and Q’anjob’al were among some of the top languages spoken in immigration courts. The same article cites ACLU data showing that about 800 of the more than 5,000 parents separated from their children were also deported without their children and that many of these parents were indigenous migrants.

Advocacy and support for these indigenous migrants is critical in addressing these issues. One group advocating for indigenous populations in Los Angeles is Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo (CIELO) who is gathering and publishing data on indigenous migrants. These diverse communities are typically left out of data collection efforts or lumped into the broad Latino category. According to CIELO’s data map based on a survey of the organization’s Undocu-Indigenous Fund recipients, there are nearly 11,000 indigenous residents, originating from 30 indigenous communities located in Mexico and Central America that speak about 20 distinct indigenous languages.

Read about Indigenous communities and language diversity in an L.A. Times article featuring CIELO’s work here. To learn more please refer to indigenous-led and other groups advocating for and supporting indigenous migrants, like Frente Indígena Oaxaqueño Binacional (Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations) and Espacio Migrante. Read more about the root causes of migration for indigenous migrants from Guatemala and the work of grassroots translators in the Bay Area in The New Yorker article. To learn more about the systemic invisibilization of indigenous migrants and recommendations for philanthropy, read Odilia Romero and Xiomara Corpeño’s article in the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s journal, here. Read recommendations to visibilize the experiences of indigenous migrants through the pandemic here.

Photo credit: Stefan Lac

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