How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Before Koreatown: The origins of Korean migration to LA

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Koreatown in Los Angeles made its name as an ethnic enclave during the 1970's, as more Koreans settled there after the United States relaxed immigration restrictions. Today it’s a cultural hub for the Korean diaspora of metropolitan L.A., estimated at about a quarter million people, according to a new report from the Migration Policy Institute.

But the report’s author points out that Koreans began arriving in L.A. much earlier - around the turn of the 20th century - just in very small numbers. 

“There was a lot of entrepreneurialism back in the first couple decades of the 20th century," said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the institute.

“People were engaged in a variety of small businesses — having barber shops and grocery stores and renting houses to non-white residents of Los Angeles,” she said.

Korean migration at a glance

  • 31 percent of Korean immigrants to the U.S. live in California
  • Top 4 counties with Korean immigrants: 
    Los Angeles and Orange Counties - California
    Queens County - New York
    Bergen County - New Jersey

Korean migration slowed after the Immigration Act of 1924 and wouldn’t pick up again until the 1950's when Korea and the US forged military ties during the Korean War. 

After the conflict, Korean wives of American servicemen moved to the US, said Batalova, “as well as the orphans who were brought to the United States and resettled throughout the country.”

But the major wave of Korean migration would take place after the Immigration Act of 1965 lifted national-origin quotas. Korean immigrants in the U.S. more than tripled from 11,200 in 1960 to 38,700 in 1970. In 2013, the number had grown to 1.1 million.

Top Destination Metropolitan Areas for Korean Immigrants in the United States, 2008-12


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