E.g., 06/20/2024
E.g., 06/20/2024
Colombian Immigrants in the United States

Colombian Immigrants in the United States

People carry a giant Colombian flag at a parade in Washington, DC.

People carry a giant Colombian flag at a parade in Washington, DC. (Photo: Roberto Galan/iStock.com)

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The Colombian immigrant population in the United States has witnessed a significant surge in recent years. Since 2018, the number of people leaving Colombia has steadily increased, driven in large part by the consequences of the country's prolonged armed conflict and economic challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 500,000 people left Colombia in 2022, according to Colombian think tank Centro de Recursos para el Análisis de Conflictos (Conflict Analysis Resource Center), the country’s highest emigration figure on record.

Many Colombians have sought to enter the United States irregularly via the U.S.-Mexico border. While there were about 6,200 encounters of Colombians at the southwest border in fiscal year (FY) 2021, the numbers rose to 125,200 in FY 2022 and 126,200 for the first eight months of FY 2023. In April, the Biden administration announced it would create family reunification parole processes for eligible individuals from Colombia as well as El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, aiming to reduce irregular arrivals at the border, which hit a record high in FY 2022.

In 2021, the most recent year for which U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey (ACS) data are available, close to 855,000 Colombian immigrants resided in the United States, representing nearly 2 percent of the 45.3 million overall U.S. immigrants and the largest group from South America. Nearly one in four South American immigrants in the United States in 2021 was from Colombia.

In many ways, the Colombian immigrant population resembles the overall U.S. foreign-born population, with similar demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, including age distribution, college completion, and professional employment. At the same time, Colombians are more likely to be naturalized citizens and obtain legal permanent residence (also known as getting a green card) through family reunification pathways. Approximately 1.6 million people tracing their heritage to Colombia resided in the United States in 2021, making it the 24th largest diaspora group in the country.

This Spotlight provides information on the Colombian immigrant population in the United States, focusing on its size, geographic distribution, and socioeconomic characteristics.

Definitions

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 people 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.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Size of Immigrant Population over Time

Since 1980, the Colombian immigrant population has grown nearly sixfold (see Figure 1). Between 2010 and 2021, it grew nearly three times as fast as the number of all U.S. immigrants: 34 percent versus 13 percent.

Figure 1. Colombian Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2021

Sources: Data from U.S. Census Bureau 2010 and 2021 American Community Surveys (ACS), and Campbell J. Gibson and Kay Jung, "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.

Distribution by U.S. State and Key Cities

Almost three in five Colombian immigrants resided in one of three states: Florida (35 percent), New York (13 percent), and New Jersey (11 percent) as of the 2017-21 period. The top five counties for Colombians were Miami-Dade and Broward counties, Florida; Queens County, New York; Harris County, Texas; and Palm Beach County, Florida. Together, these five counties were home to close to one-third of all Colombians in the United States.

Figure 2. Top States of Residence for Colombian Immigrants in the United States, 2017-21

Note: Pooled 2017-21 ACS data were used to get statistically valid estimates at the state level for smaller-population geographies. Not shown is the Colombian immigrant population in Alaska, which is small in size; for details, visit the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) Data Hub for 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 2017-21 ACS.

Click here for an interactive map that highlights the states and counties with the highest concentrations of immigrants from Colombia (or elsewhere).

The highest concentrations of Colombian immigrants were in the greater New York, Miami, Orlando, Houston, and Tampa areas. As of the 2017-21 period, 57 percent of all Colombians resided in one of these five metro areas.

Figure 3. Top Metropolitan Destinations for Colombian Immigrants in the United States, 2017-21

Note: Pooled 2017-21 ACS data were used to get statistically valid estimates at the metropolitan statistical-area level for smaller-population geographies.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2017-21 ACS.

Click here for an interactive map that highlights the metro areas with the highest concentrations of immigrants from Colombia (or other countries).

Table 1. Top Concentrations of Colombian Immigrants by U.S. Metropolitan Area, 2017-21

 

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2017-21 ACS.

English Proficiency

Nearly all Colombian immigrants speak a language other than English as their primary language. Only 8 percent of those ages 5 and older reported speaking exclusively English at home, compared to 17 percent of the total foreign-born population. A greater share of Colombian immigrants reported speaking English less than “very well” than all foreign born: 53 percent versus 46 percent as of 2021.

Age, Education, and Employment

Like the foreign-born population overall, immigrants from Colombia are more likely to be of working age than U.S. natives. In 2021, 77 percent of Colombian immigrants were of working age (18 to 64 years old) compared to 59 percent of the U.S. born. The median age for Colombians was 49 years old, higher than that of all immigrants (47 years) and the U.S. born (37 years).

Figure 4. Age Distribution of the U.S. Population by Origin, 2021

Note: Percentages 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 2021 ACS.

About 14 percent of Colombian immigrants ages 25 and older had less than a high school diploma as of 2021, versus 26 percent of all foreign-born adults and 7 percent of U.S.-born adults. At the same time, 35 percent of immigrants from Colombia had a bachelor’s degree or higher, roughly similar to the rate for the total immigrant (34 percent) and U.S.-born (35 percent) adult populations. However, among Colombians who arrived more recently (between 2017 and 2021), 43 percent of adults held a college degree.

Click here for data on immigrants’ educational attainment by country of origin and overall.

Figure 5. Educational Attainment of the U.S. Population (ages 25 and older) by Origin, 2021

Note: Percentages 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 2021 ACS.

According to the Institute of International Education, more than 8,000 students from Colombia were enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions in the 2021-22 school year, comprising a small share of the total 949,000 international students in the United States. Colombians represented 19 percent of the nearly 44,000 students from South America, second only to those from Brazil (34 percent).

Colombian immigrants had a higher rate of labor force participation, at 69 percent, than both the overall foreign-born (66 percent) and U.S.-born (62 percent) populations. Similar to the overall foreign-born workforce, most Colombians were in management, business, science, and arts (37 percent) or service (21 percent) occupations (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Employed Workers in the U.S. Civilian Labor Force (ages 16 and older) by Occupation and Origin, 2021

Note: Percentages 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 2021 ACS.

Income and Poverty

Households headed by a Colombian immigrant had median income of $66,000 in 2021, lower than that of all immigrants and the U.S. born ($70,000 for each). Thirteen percent of Colombians lived in poverty, roughly similar to all immigrants (14 percent) and the U.S. born (13 percent).

Immigration Pathways and Naturalization

Sixty-three percent of Colombian immigrants were naturalized U.S. citizens as of 2021, compared to 53 percent of all immigrants. Nearly half of Colombian immigrants entered the United States before 2000 (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Immigrants from Colombia and All Immigrants in the United States by Period of Arrival, 2021

Note: Percentages 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 2021 ACS.

Most of the 15,300 immigrants from Colombia who became lawful permanent residents (LPRs, also known as green-card holders) in FY 2021 did so through family reunification channels (89 percent). About 8 percent obtained a green card though employer sponsorship and 3 percent did so after being resettled as a refugee or having received asylum.

Figure 8. Immigration Pathways of Colombian and All Lawful Permanent Residents in the United States, FY 2021

Notes: Immediate Relatives of U.S. Citizens: Includes spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens. Family-Sponsored Preferences: Includes adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens as well as spouses and children of green-card holders. The Diversity Visa lottery was established by the Immigration Act of 1990 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. Individuals born in Colombia were not eligible for the 2024 lottery. Percentages may not add up to 100 as they are rounded to the nearest whole number.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from Department of Homeland Security (DHS), “Table 10D: Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status by Broad Class Of Admission and Region and Country of Birth: Fiscal Year 2021,” updated September 26, 2022, available online.

Unauthorized Immigrant Population

MPI estimates that approximately 171,000 unauthorized immigrants from Colombia resided in the United States as of 2019, accounting for under 2 percent of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants. This number has likely grown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as reflected in higher numbers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encounters of Colombians crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization.

Click here for an interactive map of the 2019 unauthorized immigrant population in the United States, as well as profiles by state and top counties of destination.

As of March 31, 2023, approximately 3,500 immigrants from Colombia participated in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, accounting for a small share of the total 578,700 DACA recipients. DACA provides temporary deportation relief and work authorization to unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children and meet the program’s education and other eligibility criteria.

Click here to view the top origin countries of DACA recipients and their U.S. states of residence.

Health Coverage

Approximately 61 percent of Colombian immigrants had private health insurance coverage and 30 percent had public coverage as of 2021. Colombian immigrants were slightly less likely than all immigrants to not have health insurance, with 17 percent lacking coverage compared to 19 percent of all immigrants (see Figure 9).

Figure 9. Health Coverage for Colombian Immigrants, All Immigrants, and the U.S. Born, 2021

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 2021 ACS.

Diaspora

The Colombian diaspora is comprised of approximately 1.6 million U.S. residents who were either born in Colombia or reported Colombian ancestry, according to MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 ACS. People born in the United States accounted for 758,000 (47 percent) of the U.S.-based Colombian diaspora.

Click here to see estimates of the top 35 diasporas groups in the United States in 2021.

Top Global Destinations

Worldwide, Venezuela was the top destination for Colombians living abroad (918,000), followed by the United States, as of the most recent, mid-2020 United Nations Population Division estimates. Other top destinations included Spain (450,000), Ecuador (203,000), and Chile (173,000). (Note: the ongoing crisis in Venezuela has forced many Colombians and other nationals residing there to leave; accurate data on the resident population of Venezuela are not available). Colombia itself is a host country for a significant number of forced migrants, ranking third globally after Turkey and Iran.

Click here to view an interactive map showing where migrants from Colombia and other countries have settled worldwide.

Remittances

Global remittances sent to Colombia via formal channels have grown almost sixfold since 2000, reaching more than an estimated $9.4 billion as of 2022, according to the World Bank. Remittances represented under 3 percent of Colombia’s gross domestic product (GDP).

Figure 10. Annual Remittance Flows to Colombia, 1990–2022

Source: MPI tabulations of data from the World Bank Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), “Remittance Inflows,” June 2023 update, available online.

Click here to view an interactive chart showing annual remittances received and sent by immigrants from Colombia and other countries.

Sources

Gibson, Campbell J. and Kay Jung. 2006. 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.

Institute of International Education (IIE). N.d. International Students: All Places of Origin. Accessed June 29, 2022. Available online.

Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD)/World Bank Group. 2023. Remittance Inflows. Updated June 2023. Available online.

Torrado, Santiago. 2023. La Emigración de Colombianos Rompe Todos los Registros. El País, February 18, 2023. Available online.

UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). 2023. Figures at a Glance. Updated June 14, 2023. Available online.

UN Population Division. N.d. International Migrant Stock by Destination and Origin. Accessed June 29, 2023. Available online.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2022. 2021 American Community Survey. Access from Steven Ruggles, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Josiah Grover, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 7.0 [dataset]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. Available online.

---. N.d. 2021 American Community Survey—Advanced Search. Accessed June 8, 2023. Available online.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 2023 Count of Active DACA Recipients by Month of Current DACA Expiration as of March 31, 2023. Washington, DC: USCIS. Available online.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 2023. Southwest Land Border Encounters. Updated June 21, 2023. Available online.

---. 2023. U.S. Border Patrol Southwest Border Apprehensions by Sector. Updated May 9, 2023. Available online.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics. 2023. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2021. Updated March 3, 2023. Available online.

U.S. State Department. 2023. U.S. Government Announces Sweeping New Actions to Manage Regional Migration. Press release, April 27, 2023. Available online.