California’s population of unauthorized immigrants has dropped, report says

The California population of immigrants lacking lawful status decreased by 150,000 between 2017 and 2021, but the state continues to have the highest number — 1.9 million — of unauthorized residents among the states.

According to a report published Thursday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, only two states saw an increase in such residents during the same period: Florida, which increased by 80,000 people, and Washington, which increased by 60,000.

Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois follow California as states with the largest unauthorized immigrant populations. Such immigrants have become less geographically concentrated, however, with those six states being home to 56% of that population in the U.S., down from 80% in 1990.

The Pew Research Center analyzed the most current data from the U.S. Census Bureau and government surveys such as the American Community Survey to estimate the size and characteristics of that population.

Among those counted as unauthorized immigrants by Pew are more than 2 million people with temporary permission to be in the U.S., including through pending asylum petitions, temporary protected status and the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Across the country, 10.5 million immigrants lacked legal status in 2021, down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007, but up slightly from a low of 10.2 million in 2019.

Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew, said the rebound is due in part to pent-up requests for U.S. entry after strict enforcement during the Trump administration and then pandemic closures.

The foreign-born population made up about 14% of the country’s total population in 2021. Between 2007 and 2021, the lawful immigrant population grew by a quarter and the number of naturalized U.S. citizens grew substantially, accounting for about half of all immigrants in the country.

Passel said naturalizations probably increased because of restrictions on legal immigrants, as well as the desire of immigrants to vote in presidential elections since 2008. After U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reopened following a pandemic closure, nearly a million immigrants became naturalized citizens in fiscal year 2022, the third-highest number on record.

But the Pew report notes that the new estimates don’t reflect changes since migrant arrests and expulsions started increasing in March 2021, later reaching historic highs.

The number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico decreased by 900,000 to 4.1 million in 2021. Meanwhile, the number of people from nearly every other region in the world grew rapidly, including from Venezuela, India and Canada. Immigrants from East Asia and India probably drove the increase in Washington, Passel said.

Passel said the decrease in Mexican immigrants partly explains the overall decrease in unauthorized immigrants in California. That‘s because many Mexican immigrants have returned to Mexico while fewer have entered the U.S., he said.

“In some ways it’s a status quo, but I think it’s notable that the sources are really changing quite a bit,” Passel said of the countries where immigrants were born. “We’re seeing some growth from almost every region of the world — not huge, but some — and the continued decline in Mexico as a source. I think that’s likely to continue for the next couple of years.”

During a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing last week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas described the changes reflected at the southern U.S. border as a global phenomenon.

“We are facing economic, political and climate instability across the world, exacerbated in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic — instability that is fueling the greatest level of global migration since World War II,” Mayorkas said.