How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Report: With 2.6 million unauthorized, California has a big stake in immigration debate

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California has a great deal at stake as immigration reform is debated in Congress, a new report from the University of Southern California argues.

The state is home to more than 10.3 million immigrants, an estimated 2.6 million of whom are in the U.S. illegally. This is close to one-fourth of the nation's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants. In California, these immigrants make up 7 percent of the state's overall population, 8 percent of its adults, and 9 percent of the workforce.

In Los Angeles County, unauthorized immigrants account for 9 percent of the population, a figure that's in line with previous estimates

The report from USC's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration takes a look specifically at who these California residents are and how a path to legal status would affect their prospects, along with the state's. A few highlights: 

  • Nearly half the state's unauthorized immigrants have been in the U.S. long-term: 49 percent have been here at least a decade. They also have deep family ties: Nearly 13 percent of the state's children have at least one parent who is here illegally. And in spite of low median wages, many have managed to buy homes: An estimated 17 percent of the state's unauthorized heads of household are homeowners.
  • The median age of unauthorized immigrants in California is 31, a prime working age, compared with 50 for naturalized immigrants and 44 for non-citizens here legally. However, full-time unauthorized workers earn $30,000 less a year on average than native-born ones. Different reports suggest unauthorized immigrants would benefit from an income boost of between 14 and 25 percent if they can work legally, and the report argues this would benefit the state's economy.
  • The state's unauthorized immigrants are predominantly Latino — 85 percent — but quite diverse. Mexicans make up the majority, but Central Americans are also well represented. Asians and Pacific Islanders make up about 12 percent of the state's unauthorized population, with Filipinos, Koreans and Chinese among the largest groups.
  • The U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants have a tougher time than those born to parents who are here legally. Many don't obtain services or programs they are eligible for because they fear outing their parents, and childhood poverty is pervasive: For example, in Orange County, only 14 percent of children with U.S.-born parents live in poverty, compared with 61 percent of children whose parents are here illegally.

The report's authors argue that integrating California's unauthorized immigrants via a path to legal status will improve not just their lot, but that of successive generations, allowing their children to live better and contribute more to the economy.

They also say that access to health care and programs that raise "human capital" — such as English classes, educational and other opportunities — will be essential to these immigrants' success if they're given the chance to adjust their status. 

The Senate is expected to begin the amendment process for its immigration reform bill later this week, while additional bills are expected soon from the House. 

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