Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Central Americans are fastest-growing Latino group in U.S.

A Los Angeles eatery advertises Mexican and Central American food. According to the 2010 census, Los Angeles County is home to the nation's largest communities of Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants.
A Los Angeles eatery advertises Mexican and Central American food. According to the 2010 census, Los Angeles County is home to the nation's largest communities of Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants. Photo by A Culinary (Photo) Journal/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Between 2000 and 2010, immigrants from Central America became the fastest-growing population of Latinos in the United States, a new report from the Migration Policy Institute concludes. 

Using census data, the report charts how growth in the number of Central Americans in the U.S.— led by immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — outpaced that of immigrants from Mexico, South America and the Caribbean.

The Central American population grew during in that decade by 51 percent, to a little more than three million people. By comparison, the population of Mexican-born immigrants grew by only 28 percent as migration from that country has tapered in recent years.

There was relatively little migration from Central America in 1970, but by a decade later a series of civil wars had begun driving people north, a trend that continued into the 1990s. The overall Central American-born share of the immigrant population in the U.S. went from less than one percent in 1960 to close to eight percent in 2010.

The top three Central American countries of origin today are El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, followed by Nicaragua, Panama and other nations. A few more highlights: 

  • About half of all Central American immigrants in the U.S. live in California, Texas and Florida.
  • More than a third of all Central American immigrants live in three major metropolitan areas: greater Los Angeles, New York, and Washington DC.  (A recent Pew Hispanic Center report noted L.A. County as having the nation's largest populations of Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants.)
  • Nearly 34,000 Central American-born immigrants became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2011, but the share of those who have naturalized (31 percent) is lower than that of the overall foreign-born population in the U.S.
  • In 2011, 82 percent of the 43,707 Central American immigrants who obtained green cards did so through family sponsorship; about 46 percent qualified as immediate family members (i.e. spouses, parents, or unmarried children under 21) of a U.S. citizen. Central Americans also accounted for four percent of immigrants granted asylum in 2011.
  • About 1.5 million children under 18 — nine percent of all children of immigrants in the U.S. —  live in households with at least one parent born in Central American.
  • An estimated 14 percent of unauthorized immigrants in early 2011 were from El Salvador (six percent), Guatemala (five percent), and Honduras (three percent).

On the latter point: As unauthorized cross-border migration from Mexico has declined, U.S. authorities have noticed a rise in migration from Central America through South Texas; at the same time, border deaths in the region have been on the rise. One news report cited a drug violence spillover from southern Mexico as a possible factor driving some of these migrants north.  

Read the complete MPI report here.

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