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Central American Immigrants in the United States
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Increasing arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border of migrants and asylum seekers from Central America in 2018 and 2019 significantly tested the capacity of the U.S. immigration system. While intense media and public attention has focused on surging migration of families and unaccompanied minors from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, immigration from the region to the United States has a decades-long history. Nearly half of the approximately 3.5 million Central American immigrants residing in the United States as of 2017 came before 2000. Immigrants from the Northern Triangle comprised 86 percent of the Central Americans in the United States. In 2017, Central American immigrants represented 8 percent of the United States’ 44.5 million immigrants.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines the foreign born as individuals who had no U.S. citizenship at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees and asylees, legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or other temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization.
The terms foreign born and immigrant are used interchangeably and refer to those who were born in another country and later emigrated to the United States. Data-collection constraints do not permit inclusion of those who gained citizenship in a given Central American nation via naturalization and later moved to the United States.
In this Spotlight, Central America includes the following countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Some data in this analysis also include persons for whom the Census Bureau designation “Other Central America, ns/nec” (not specified or not elsewhere classified) was listed as place of birth. The Northern Triangle of Central America refers to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua drove the emigration of significant numbers of Central Americans to the United States during the 1980s. Displacement, economic instability, and insecurity followed, and although peace accords brought a formal end to civil conflict in all three countries the following decade, political and economic instability continued, and so did migration northward, with many arriving illegally. Between 1980 to 1990, the Central American immigrant population in the United States tripled.
Several natural disasters, notably Hurricane Mitch in Honduras and Nicaragua in 1998 and a series of earthquakes in El Salvador in early 2001, led the United States to designate Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans as eligible for Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which grants nationals of designated countries who already reside in the United States work authorization and provisional relief from deportation. In 2017 and early 2018, the Trump administration announced it would not renew the TPS designations for the three countries. However, those actions have been challenged in federal court and TPS remained in effect at this writing for these populations as the litigation continues.
Today, Central Americans continue to flee insecurity as well as poverty that has been exacerbated by drought and significant crop failure. The Northern Triangle countries are especially affected by high homicide rates (though these have been falling in recent years), gang activity, extortion, and corrupt public institutions.
Since fiscal year (FY) 2011, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has apprehended growing numbers of unaccompanied children and migrants traveling as families. In FY 2018, CBP apprehended more than 38,000 unaccompanied children and nearly 104,000 people traveling as families from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras at the U.S.-Mexico border. In FY 2018, 58 percent of unaccompanied minors and 49 percent of those migrating as a family from the Northern Triangle were Guatemalan. As of June 2019, CBP had apprehended more than 363,000 migrants in families from the three countries during the first nine months of the fiscal year, more than tripling total FY 2018 apprehensions. With significant shares of families and unaccompanied children requesting asylum, many have been released into the United States pending long-off hearings in U.S. immigration court.
From 1980 to 2017, the size of the Central American immigrant population grew approximately tenfold (see Figure 1). Since 1980, immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras accounted for the greatest increases in the Central American population, with each origin group growing by more than 1,350 percent by 2017. The other origin groups had much lower growth rates.
Figure 1. Central American Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2017
Sources: Data from U.S. Census Bureau 2010 and 2017 American Community Surveys (ACS); Campbell J. Gibson and Emily Lennon, "Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850-2000" (Working Paper no. 81, U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC, February 2006), available online.
Click here for an interactive chart showing changes in the number of immigrants from Central America in the United States over time. Select individual countries from the dropdown menu.
In 2017, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were the top three origin countries for immigrants from Central America, followed by Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize (see Table 1).
Table 1. Country of Origin for Central American Immigrants in United States, 2017
Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 American Community Survey (ACS).
About one-third of Central American immigrants are naturalized U.S. citizens, and the majority of those who received lawful permanent resident (LPR) status (also known as a green card) in 2017 did so through family reunification channels. In general, Central American immigrants tend to have lower educational attainment, English proficiency, and incomes than the overall immigrant population, but they participate in the labor force at a higher rate than foreign- and U.S.-born adults. Central Americans are also among the top beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals (DACA) and TPS programs, both designated for termination by the Trump administration but kept alive, at least temporarily, by court orders. Although Central American countries share similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds, socioeconomic conditions vary significantly by country. Due to the large share of individuals from the Northern Triangle, the characteristics of Central American immigrants overall are influenced by the profile of those from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
More than 4.4 million international migrants from Central America worldwide have settled in another country, according to 2017 estimates by the United Nations Population Division. Almost 80 percent resided in the United States, which was the top destination for every origin country from the region except Nicaragua, whose primary destination was Costa Rica. Approximately 15 percent (649,000) had settled in another country in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Mexico being a common destination. Another 2 percent of Central American migrants resided in Southern Europe (109,000) and 2 percent were in Canada (100,000).
Click here to view an interactive map showing where migrants from Central America (and elsewhere) have settled worldwide.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau (the most recent 2017 American Community Survey [ACS] and pooled 2013-17 ACS data), the Department of Homeland Security’sYearbook of Immigration Statistics, and World Bank annual remittance data, this Spotlight provides information on the Central American immigrant population in the United States, focusing on its size, geographic distribution, and socioeconomic characteristics.
Click on the bullet points below for more information:
- Distribution by State and Key Cities
- English Proficiency
- Age, Education, and Employment
- Income and Poverty
- Immigration Pathways and Naturalization
- Health Coverage
Distribution by State and Key Cities
Nearly half (49 percent) of Central American immigrants in the United States lived in California (26 percent), Texas (12 percent), and Florida (11 percent). Almost 30 percent have settled in four counties: Los Angeles County, California; Harris County, Texas; Miami-Dade County, Florida; and Prince George’s County, Maryland.
The largest groups of Salvadorans (263,700) and Guatemalans (173,700) lived in Los Angeles County, while Miami-Dade County was the most popular destination for Nicaraguans (78,700) and Costa Ricans (5,500). The Central American immigrant population in Prince George’s County, MD was mainly comprised of Salvadorans (43,500) and Guatemalans (14,400); Harris County, TX had a large population of Salvadorans (105,000) and Hondurans (51,600).
Figure 2. Top Destination States for Central American Immigrants in the United States, 2013-17
Note: Pooled 2013–17 ACS data were used to get statistically valid estimates at the state level for smaller-population geographies. Not shown are the populations in Alaska and Hawaii, which are small in size; for details, visit the MPI Data Hub to view an interactive map showing geographic distribution of immigrants by state and county, available online.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2013–17 ACS.
Click here for an interactive map that shows the geographic distribution of immigrants by state and county. Select individual countries from the dropdown menu to see which states and counties have the most Central American immigrants.
The greater Los Angeles, New York, Washington, DC, Miami, and Houston metropolitan areas were home to the largest number of immigrants from Central America, together representing 51 percent of the all Central Americans in the nation.
Figure 3. Top Metropolitan Destinations for Central American Immigrants in the United States, 2013-17
Note: Pooled 2013–17 ACS data were used to get statistically valid estimates at the metropolitan statistical-area level for smaller-population geographies. Not shown are the populations in Alaska and Hawaii, which are small in size.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2013–17 ACS.
Click here for an interactive map that highlights the metropolitan areas with the highest concentrations of immigrants. Select individual countries from the dropdown menu to see which metropolitan areas have the most Central American immigrants.
Table 2. Top Concentrations of Central American Immigrants by U.S. Metropolitan Area, 2013-17
Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2013-17 ACS.
The majority (66 percent) of Central American immigrants have limited English proficiency, compared to 48 percent of the total foreign-born population. Guatemalans (71 percent), Salvadorans (70 percent), and Hondurans (68 percent) were more likely than other Central Americans to be Limited English Proficient (LEP). Panamanians (21 percent) were more likely than the overall U.S. immigrant population (16 percent) to speak only English at home. In general, close to 7 percent of Central American immigrants reported speaking only English at home.
Note: Limited English proficiency refers to persons who indicated on the ACS questionnaire that they spoke English less than “very well.”
Age, Education, and Employment
The Central American immigrant population is younger than the foreign-born population overall but older than the U.S.-born population. In 2017, the median age of Central American immigrants was about 40 years, compared to 45 and 36 years for the foreign- and native-born groups, respectively. Guatemalan and Honduran (37 years for each) immigrants tend to be younger than other Central American immigrants.
Eighty-three percent of Central American immigrants were of working age (18-64 years), compared to 79 percent of foreign-born individuals and 59 percent of the U.S. born.
Figure 4. Age Distribution of U.S. Residents by Origin, 2017
Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 ACS. Numbers may not add up to 100 as they are rounded to the nearest whole number.
Almost half (47 percent) of Central American immigrant adults (ages 25 and over) had less than a high school diploma in 2017, compared to 28 percent of all immigrant adults and 9 percent of U.S.-born adults. About one-quarter (26 percent) had a high school degree and 10 percent had received a bachelor’s degree or higher. Compared to other Central American immigrants, Guatemalans tend to have lower educational attainment, with 55 percent lacking a high school diploma. In contrast, Panamanians have the highest educational attainment: 32 percent had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2017, similar to both foreign- and U.S.-born adults (31 percent and 32 percent, respectively).
Central American immigrants participate in the labor force at a higher rate than both the overall foreign- and U.S.-born populations. About 72 percent of Central American immigrants were in the civilian labor force, compared to 66 percent of the total immigrant population and 62 percent of native-born individuals. Salvadorans and Guatemalans had the highest labor force participation rates (74 percent each).
Central American immigrants were most likely to be employed in service occupations (32 percent); natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations (23 percent); and production, transportation, and material moving occupations (18 percent). These were the three most common occupational groups for Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants, with 35 percent of those from El Salvador and 34 percent from Guatemala employed in service occupations. While service occupations were also among the top three areas of employment for Panamanian and Costa Rican immigrants, these groups were more likely than other Central American adults to be employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations (38 percent of immigrants from Panama and 28 percent from Costa Rica).
Figure 5. Employed Workers in the U.S. Civilian Labor Force (ages 16 and Older) by Occupation and Origin, 2017
Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 ACS.
Central American immigrants generally have lower incomes than overall foreign- and U.S.-born individuals. The median income of households headed by a Central American immigrant in 2017 was approximately $46,000, compared to $56,700 for all foreign-born and $60,800 for U.S.-born households. Nicaraguans and Panamanians were the highest earners of all Central American immigrants—the median household income for each group being about $56,700, followed by those from Costa Rica ($53,400). Guatemalan and Honduran households had the lowest incomes: $43,000 and $40,000, respectively.
Central American immigrants are also more likely to live in poverty. While 15 percent of foreign-born and 13 percent of U.S.-born persons were in families with incomes below the poverty line, 19 percent of all Central American immigrants lived in poverty in 2017. Poverty rates were highest for Honduran (25 percent) and Guatemalan (22 percent) immigrants.
Immigration Pathways and Naturalization
As of 2017, 1.2 million Central Americans were naturalized U.S. citizens, representing 34 percent of the total Central American immigrant population. In comparison, 49 percent of all immigrants in 2017 were naturalized citizens. Panamanians (74 percent), Nicaraguans (62 percent), and Costa Ricans (55 percent) were more likely to be naturalized citizens, while Hondurans (24 percent), Guatemalans (28 percent), and Salvadorans (33 percent) had the lowest shares of naturalized citizens.
Nearly half (48 percent) of all Central American immigrants first arrived in the United States before 2000, compared to 53 percent of the total foreign-born population. Central Americans are slightly more likely than immigrants overall to have entered the United States between 2000 and 2009, while an equal proportion of both groups entered in 2010 or later (see Figure 6). The majority of Panamanians (76 percent), Nicaraguans (69 percent), and Costa Ricans (54 percent) arrived before 2000. More than half of Honduran (62 percent) and Guatemalan (59 percent) immigrants arrived in 2000 or later.
Figure 6. Central American and All Immigrants in the United States by Period of Arrival, 2017
Note: Numbers may not add up to 100 as they are rounded to the nearest whole number.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 ACS.
As with the overall immigrant population, most immigrants from Central America who obtain green cards do so through family reunification channels. In 2017, 56,585 Central Americans became lawful permanent residents (LPRs): 55 percent were sponsored by immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens and another 24 percent through other family-sponsored preferences (see Figure 7). Costa Ricans (11 percent) and Hondurans (10 percent) were more likely than other Central Americans to become LPRs through employment sponsorship, while Guatemalans (11 percent) were more likely to obtain green cards after gaining asylum status.
Figure 7. Immigration Pathways of Central American and All Legal Permanent Residents in the United States, 2017
Notes: Family-sponsored: Includes adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens as well as spouses and children of green-card holders. Immediate relatives of U.S. citizens: Includes spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens. Diversity Visa Lottery: The Immigration Act of 1990 established the Diversity Visa Lottery to allow entry to immigrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. The law states that 55,000 diversity visas in total are made available each fiscal year. All Central American countries are eligible for the diversity visa (DV 2020) except El Salvador.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from Department of Homeland Security (DHS), 2017 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, 2019), available online.
Three of the ten countries designated for TPS are in Central America. Salvadorans make up 61 percent of the total 318,000 estimated number of TPS re-registrants,* with roughly 195,000 re-registrants. The 57,000 Hondurans represent 18 percent of the total, and Nicaraguans account for less than 1 percent (2,550).
Note: *The above data refer to the number of individuals registered during the previous registration period. Registration periods differ for each designated country.
A preliminary injunction issued by a federal court in October 2018 prevented the Trump administration’s termination of TPS for Nicaragua and El Salvador, so the protections remain in effect while the case is pending (with employment authorization valid until January 2, 2020). In March 2019, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed to include Honduran TPS holders in the same injunction, pushing back their TPS termination date to January 5, 2020. These termination dates will be further delayed if the lawsuits have not concluded and the injunction remains in effect in December 2019.
The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that as of 2012-16, approximately 1.65 million (15 percent) of the estimated 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States were from Central America. Major sending countries for Central American unauthorized immigrants included El Salvador (655,000), Guatemala (525,000), and Honduras (355,000).
Click here for demographic profiles of the unauthorized immigrant population in the United States at national, state, and top county levels. Click here for a map showing state and counties where unauthorized immigrants from select countries of origin reside in the United States.
Approximately 125,000 youth from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua were eligible for work authorization and protection from deportation under the DACA program as of 2018, according to MPI estimates. Since the launch of the program in 2012, more than 86,300 youth from these five Central American countries had initiated DACA petitions, and almost 73,600 (85 percent) were approved, according to the latest data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). As of April 30, 2019, 61,900 immigrants from these countries were active DACA recipients, including nearly 25,600 Salvadorans, 17,500 Guatemalans, and 16,000 Hondurans.
Note: Published USCIS data on DACA applications and approvals are available for the top 25 origin countries. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua are the only Central American countries on this list.
Central American immigrants are more likely to be uninsured than the foreign-born and U.S.-born populations. In 2017, 39 percent of Central American immigrants lacked health insurance coverage, compared to 20 percent of the foreign born overall and 7 percent of the U.S. born. Half of Hondurans and 47 percent of Guatemalans were uninsured.
About 40 percent of Central American immigrants were covered by private health insurance (compared to 57 percent of the foreign born and 69 percent of the native born), and 25 percent had public coverage, also less than the other two origin groups (see Figure 8).
Figure 8. Health Coverage for the U.S. Population, by Nativity, 2017
Note: The sum of shares by type of insurance is likely to be greater than 100 because people may have more than one type of insurance.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2017 ACS.
About 6.6 million people who were either born in Central America or reported Central American ancestry make up the Central American diaspora in the United States, according to tabulations from the U.S. Census Bureau 2017 ACS.
Notes: There is no universally recognized definition of the term "diaspora." Most often, the term includes individuals who self-identify as having ancestral ties to a specific country of origin. The Central American diaspora in the United States includes all individuals who were born in a Central American country, reported any “Central American Hispanic” origin, or who selected at least one of the following responses on the two ACS questions about ancestry: “Costa Rican,” “Guatemalan,” “Honduran,” “Nicaraguan,” “Panamanian,” “Salvadoran,” or “Central American.”
According to the World Bank, global remittances sent to Central America via formal channels grew six-fold since 2000, surpassing $22.4 billion in 2018. Remittances as a share of GDP vary significantly by country, ranging from less than 1 percent for Panama and Costa Rica to 20 percent for Honduras and 21 percent for El Salvador.
Figure 9. Annual Remittance Flows to Central America, 1980-2018
*The 2018 figures represent World Bank estimates.
Source: MPI tabulations of data from the World Bank Prospects Group, “Annual Remittances Data,” updated April 2019, available online.
Visit the Data Hub’s collection of interactive remittances tools, which track remittances by inflow and outflow, between countries, and over time.
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Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics. 2019. 2017 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics. Available online.
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 2019. Drought in the Dry Corridor of Central America. Accessed July 22, 2019. Available online.
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