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

Insights and Analyses

  • California is home to a large share of the nation’s immigrant population. In 2018, about 27% of Californians were immigrants.
  • While overall numbers of immigrants are declining, according to research by the Migration Policy Institute, in 2018, just over 4 million children in California had at least one immigrant parent.
  • In 2018, a majority of California’s immigrant population were people of color with 50% identifying as Latino, 34% identifying as Asian American, nearly 2% identifying as Black, nearly 2% identifying as Mixed/other, and 0.3% identifying as Pacific Islander.  
  • Black immigrants compose a portion of California’s immigrant population yet they are often undercounted and underrepresented. As of 2018, in California, nearly 1 in 5 Black residents were immigrants or the U.S.-born children of immigrants.
  • Indigenous migrants are also undercounted and underrepresented as they are often incorrectly lumped into the Latino category. A recent data sample capturing the diversity of Indigenous populations residing in Los Angeles by Comunidades Indigenas en Liderazgo (CIELO) shows that 54% identified as Zapoteco, 18% as Mixe, 16% as Quiche, 5% as Chinanteco, 2% as Mixteco, 2% as Triqui, 1% as Acateco, 1% as Mazateco, and 1% as Totonaco.

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). CIELO has also recently started gathering data on indigenous migrants because these diverse communities are typically left out of data collection efforts or lumped into the broad Latino category. Learn more about CIELO’s work and access some of their data 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.

Photo credit: Stefan Lac

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