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International Migration - The View from LA

Updated on October 16, 2013

In 1960 LA was a predominantly European, indeed Anglo, city with a population drawn largely from elsewhere in the USA. Today it is an increasingly Latin American, mainly Mexican, city with significant Asian minorities, and perhaps 45% of it's entire population foreign born. Obviously an extreme and not a 'typical' case, the recent experience of Los Angeles, and California more generally, provides a useful standard against which to compare other cases of recent dramatic increases in foreign immigration. Identification of similarities and differences highlights both universal dilemmas and more local peculiarities in migration as a fundamental dimension of globalisation.

Number of foreign born in major US cities

Number of foreign born
New York
San Francisco

In the USA as a whole, the percentage of the population that is foreign born is still below peak levels that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when close to 15% of the population was foreign born. But the foreign born and there children make up 21% of the population under 25, a three fold increase since 1970. In cities such as LA, New York, San Francisco, Miami and Chicago, much larger segments of the population are foreign born. Between them, LA and New York account for one third of the foreign born population in the entire country.

A work permit for a Mexican migrant.
A work permit for a Mexican migrant.

Sources of Migrants

Fifty years ago, most immigrants came from Europe and settled largely in the northeast and midwest. In the 1990s the highest rates of growth were in the southern, western and upper-midwestern states, where poorer immigrants typically from Latin America, found work in industries such as agribusiness and meat-packing.

Today, 76% of recent immigrants are found in 10 states, mainly in the west and south of the country, and come predominantly from Latin America and Asia. Mexico, China, the Philippines and South Korea account for the largest share of legal immigrants. Many of the illegal immigrants, variously estimated as between 2 and 5 million, come from Mexico and the countries of Central America. India provides most of those on 'HIB' visas, designed to bring people with technical qualifications to the country for fixed terms. Many of these visa-holders become permanent residents.

When they move, immigrants tend to follow well-worn paths that do not necessarily lead to either the richest or the closest destination. The history of social, economic and political connections is much more important than physical distance or relative affluence. Consequently the main sources of immigrants for the USA are its main trading partners (Canada, Mexico, China - granted two share a border), former colonies (the Philippines, Puerto Rico) and regions in which the USA has recently intervened militarily and politically (southeast Asia, the Caribbean, Central America).

The fact that Mexico is the most important source of US immigrants is not surprising. In addition to sharing a land border, it was twice invaded by US troops (1914 and 1917) and was the target of the US government labour recruitment efforts (1917-18 and 1942-64). Mexican governments have also undertaken a dramatic restructuring of the country's previously protectionist economy under US pressure since 1986 and as part of NAFTA (an economic treaty between Canada, Mexico and the USA) since 1994. This restructuring has reduced agricultural employment and put intense competitive pressure on the country's homegrown manufacturing industries, thus creating increased unemployment and job insecurity.

Destination Los Angeles

LA is the destination for many of the migrants to California. Of the 8.9 million foreign born in Californis, 4.7 million live in Los Angeles, Riverside and Orange counties (the LA metropolitan area). In the city Americans of European ancestry are now a minority and Latin Americans are the absolute majority, with sizable African American and Asian minorities as well. In the greater Los Angeles area, immigrant populations are highly concentrated.

However, there seems to be increasing resettlement on the basis of social class as relatively more successful immigrants move into more affluent neighbourhoods. This is much more the case with Asian and South American immigrants than it is with Mexicans who tend to be poorer and remain trapped in low-paying occupations. So, even as sections of Los Angeles have become associated with different immigrant groups, there is considerate local movement that belies the image of static or fixed immigrant neighbourhoods.

LA is often presented by geographers as a model for the future elsewhere, whether positive or negative. In much contemporary American social science it is seen as an indicator of a future of either multicultural cooperation or intense racial segregation and conflict. Whatever the future might hold, it is clear that LA exemplifies the transformations being wrought by the influx of migrants from largely poor and culturally distinctive countries into the centres of affluence and power in the global North.


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    • travel_man1971 profile image

      Ireno Alcala 4 years ago from Bicol, Philippines

      I'm also interested to travel in LA, where some of my cousins reside. I've been there during early years of this decade as a seafarer.

      Thanks for sharing this hub.