E.g., 06/26/2024
E.g., 06/26/2024
South American Immigrants in the United States

South American Immigrants in the United States

Flags of South American countries.

Flags of South American countries. (Photo: iStock.com/fumumpa)

South American immigration to the United States has been on the rise, growing three times as fast as overall U.S. immigration from 2000 to 2022, although the nearly 4 million South Americans comprised just 9 percent of all 46.2 million U.S.-based immigrants as of 2022. South Americans first began immigrating to the United States during the Cold War era, when countries such as Argentina, Chile, and Colombia experienced political upheaval, armed conflict, and economic instability. Since then, immigration from the region has continued to be driven by a mix of political, social, and economic crises, exemplified by a massive exodus of Venezuelans since conditions in their country began deteriorating in 2015.

Recently, encounters of South Americans arriving without authorization at the U.S.-Mexico border have dramatically increased, corresponding with new instability in origin countries. In fiscal year (FY) 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered Venezuelans 266,000 times at the southwest border, a more than fivefold increase over the 49,000 encounters in FY 2021 (many of these occurred at official ports of entry, often after migrants had scheduled an appointment through the CBP One app). Encounters with Colombians, while fewer, increased at an even faster rate (nearly 26-fold), from about 6,000 in FY 2021 to 160,000 in FY 2023.

In response, the U.S. government has used immigration parole programs to provide legal pathways for some South Americans and others while stepping up returns of those arriving irregularly. Humanitarian parole, a tool increasingly used by the Biden administration, allows recipients to legally enter the United States but provides only temporary residency and no pathway to citizenship. By the end of February 2024, 91,000 Venezuelans had arrived under a specific parole program for nationals of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Since 2023, Colombians and Ecuadorians (along with nationals of some Central American and Caribbean countries) have been eligible for family reunification parole programs that allow people who have been approved for a family-based green card to enter and remain in the United States while they await their visa.

On average, most South Americans who obtain lawful permanent residence in the United States (also known as receiving a green card) do so through family ties. By and large, South American immigrants mirror the sociodemographic characteristics of all U.S. immigrants, with a few exceptions: They tend to have arrived more recently, are more likely to have graduated high school, and are more likely to participate in the labor force.

This Spotlight provides information on the South American 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.

South America includes the countries of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela, as well as the British overseas territory of the Falkland Islands and the French overseas department of French Guiana.

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Size of Immigrant Population over Time

Since 1980, there has been a significant increase in the size of the U.S. South American immigrant population, although the rate of growth had slowed by nearly half as of 2022. The population grew by 85 percent between 1980 and 1990, and 86 percent between 1990 and 2000, but just 41 percent between 2000 and 2010, and 45 percent between 2010 and 2022 (see Figure 1). Still, South Americans outpaced the growth of the total U.S. immigrant population (16 percent) between 2010 and 2022.

Figure 1. South American Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2022

Sources: Data from U.S. Census Bureau 2010 and 2022 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.

Countries of Origin

In 2022, four out of five immigrants from South America came from one of a handful of countries: Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, or Peru (see Table 1). Between 2010 and 2022, the Venezuelan population grew the fastest of all South American groups in the United States (263 percent), and Venezuela rose from being the sixth-largest South American country of origin to the second largest. The number of Brazilians also grew notably fast during that period (82 percent), as did the number of Colombians (46 percent).

Table 1. South American Immigrants in the United States, by Country of Origin, 2010 and 2022

Source: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau 2010 and 2022 ACS.

Distribution by U.S. State and Key Cities

More than two-thirds of U.S. immigrants from South America were concentrated in one of five states during the 2018-22 period: Florida (27 percent), New York (17 percent), New Jersey (10 percent), California (8 percent), and Texas (6 percent). The top four counties for South Americans were Miami-Dade County in Florida, Queens County in New York, and Broward and Orange counties in Florida. Together these four counties were home to 24 percent of South American immigrants in the United States.

Figure 2. Top States of Residence for South American Immigrants in the United States, 2018-22

Note: Pooled 2018-22 ACS data were used to get statistically valid estimates at the state level for smaller-population geographies. Not shown is the population in Alaska, which is small in size; for details, visit MPI’s Migration Data Hub for an interactive map showing geographic distribution of immigrants by state and county, available online.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s pooled 2018-22 ACS.

Click here for an interactive map that highlights the states and counties with the highest concentrations of immigrants from South America and other places of origin.

The U.S. cities with the most South Americans were the greater New York, Miami, Orlando, Washington DC, and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. These five metro areas accounted for 54 percent of South Americans residing in the United States. Nearly 10 percent of residents in the greater Miami metropolitan area were born in South America (see Table 2).

Figure 3. Top Metropolitan Destinations for South American Immigrants in the United States, 2018-22

Note: Pooled 2018-22 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; for details, visit MPI’s Migration Data Hub for an interactive map showing geographic distribution of immigrants by metro area, available online.
Source: MPI tabulation of data from U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2018-22 ACS.

Click here for an interactive map that highlights the metro areas with the most immigrants from South America and other origins.

Table 2. Top U.S. Metropolitan Areas of Residence for South American Immigrants, 2018-22

Source: MPI tabulation of data from the U.S. Census Bureau pooled 2018-22 ACS.

English Proficiency

South American immigrants are about as likely to be proficient in English as the overall foreign-born population. In 2022, approximately 48 percent of South Americans ages 5 and over reported speaking English less than “very well,” compared to 46 percent of all immigrants. About 14 percent of South Americans spoke only English at home, versus 17 percent of the total immigrant population.

English proficiency rates vary by country of origin. More than half of Ecuadorians (61 percent), Venezuelans (57 percent), and Colombians (55 percent) reported limited proficiency in English, whereas immigrants from Peru (49 percent), Brazil and Bolivia (42 percent each), Chile (40 percent), and Argentina (34 percent) were less likely. Very few immigrants from English-speaking Guyana (about 4 percent) had limited English proficiency.

Age, Education, and Employment

South American immigrants had roughly the same median age as the overall foreign-born population (46 years versus 47 years) but were older than the U.S.-born population (37 years) as of 2022. Compared to the U.S. born, South Americans were more likely to be of working age (18 to 64 years old): 77 percent versus 58 percent (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Age Distribution of the U.S. Population by Origin, 2022

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 2022 ACS.

South Americans in the United States tend to have higher educational attainment than the overall foreign-born population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 14 percent of South American immigrant adults had less than a high school diploma in 2022, lower than all immigrant adults (25 percent). About 37 percent of South American immigrant adults reported having a bachelor’s degree or higher, roughly on par with all immigrant and U.S.-born adults (see Figure 5). 

More than half of immigrants from Venezuela (54 percent), 45 percent apiece from Argentina and Brazil, and 43 percent from Chile were college graduates, compared to 21 percent of immigrants from Ecuador and 24 percent from Guyana.

Figure 5. Educational Attainment of the U.S. Population (ages 25 and older) by Origin, 2022

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 2022 ACS.

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

According to the Institute of International Education, more than 46,000 students from South America were enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in the 2022-23 school year, comprising 4 percent of the more than 1 million international students in the United States. More than half were from Brazil (16,000) or Colombia (9,000). South Americans represented 57 percent of the 82,000 students from the Latin America and Caribbean region.

South Americans have a higher labor force participation rate than all immigrants and the U.S. born. In 2022, 71 percent of South American immigrants 16 and older were in the civilian labor force, compared to 67 percent of all immigrants and 62 percent of the U.S. born. Employed South American immigrants were more likely to be in management, business, science, and arts occupations, followed by service occupations (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Employed Workers in the Civilian Labor Force (ages 16 and older) by Occupation and Origin, 2022

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 2022 ACS.

Income and Poverty

In 2022, South American immigrants tended to have slightly lower incomes than both the overall foreign- and native-born populations. The median household income of South American immigrants was $73,000, slightly lower than $75,000 for both immigrant and U.S.-born households. 

Households headed by immigrants from Bolivia and Argentina (both $86,000), Guyana ($82,000) and Chile ($81,000) had the highest median incomes among South Americans, while Colombian and Venezuelan households (both $68,000) had the lowest.

In 2022, 13 percent of South American immigrants lived in poverty, compared to 12 percent of the U.S. born and 14 percent of all foreign born. Venezuelans and Ecuadorians were slightly more likely to be living in poverty (15 percent each), followed by immigrants from Colombia (14 percent). Bolivians were the least likely to be living in poverty (8 percent). (The U.S. Census Bureau defines poverty as having an income below $29,700 for a family of four in 2022.)

Immigration Pathways and Naturalization

In 2022, South American immigrants were slightly less likely than the overall foreign-born population to be naturalized U.S. citizens (51 percent and 53 percent, respectively).

South American immigrants from Guyana (81 percent), Peru (63 percent), Bolivia (62 percent), and Argentina (60 percent) were more likely to be naturalized, while those from Brazil (37 percent) and Venezuela (31 percent) were the least likely.

About 40 percent of South American immigrants arrived in the United States in 2010 or later, including 68 percent of Venezuelans and 56 percent of Brazilians. In contrast, more than half of immigrants from Guyana (58 percent) and Chile (52 percent) arrived before 2000.

Figure 7. South Americans and All Immigrants in the United States by Period of Arrival, 2022

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 2022 ACS

In FY 2022, 99,000 South Americans obtained a green card, making up 10 percent of the total 1 million new lawful permanent residents (LPRs). Half of South Americans who received a green card did so as immediate relatives of U.S. citizens. South Americans were slightly more likely to obtain a green card via a refugee or asylum pathway (10 percent) than all new LPRs in FY 2022 (8 percent; see Figure 8).

Figure 8. Immigration Pathways of South Americans and All Lawful Permanent Residents in the United States, FY 2022

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 Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela are not eligible for the most recent DV 2025 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 2022,” updated August 21, 2023, available online.

The top countries of birth for the 99,000 South Americans who became LPRs in 2022 were Brazil (24 percent), Colombia (22 percent), and Venezuela (21 percent). Venezuelans were less likely than other groups to obtain a green card based on family ties: 43 percent versus 66 percent for all South Americans and 58 percent for all new LPRs. In contrast, Venezuelans were much more likely to have been admitted as refugees or asylees (39 percent) than the total South American immigrant population (10 percent) or all new LPRs (8 percent).

Unauthorized Immigrant Population

The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) estimates that as of 2021, more than 1 million (9 percent) of the estimated 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States were from South America. The top countries of birth for South Americans living in the United States without legal status were Venezuela (251,000), Colombia (201,000), and Brazil (195,000).

Click here for an overview of the 2021 unauthorized immigrant population in the United States.

Approximately 24,200 unauthorized immigrants from South America were active participants as of December 2023 in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary deportation relief and work authorization to individuals who arrived as children, according to the latest data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). These individuals represented approximately 5 percent of the 530,100 DACA participants. The top South American countries of origin for DACA participants were Peru (4,900 recipients), Brazil (4,000), Ecuador (3,700), Colombia (3,200), and Argentina (2,600).

Health Coverage

South American immigrants were as about as likely to be uninsured as the overall foreign-born population (19 percent and 18 percent, respectively), and more likely than the native born (6 percent; see Figure 9). South Americans were slightly more likely to have private health insurance coverage (59 percent) and less likely to have public coverage (28 percent) than the overall foreign-born population.

Ecuadorians (26 percent), Brazilians (24 percent), Venezuelans (20 percent), and Bolivians (19 percent) were more likely to lack health insurance than immigrants from Guyana (7 percent), Chile (13 percent), and Argentina (14 percent).

Figure 9. Health Coverage for South American Immigrants, All Immigrants, and the U.S. Born, 2022

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 2022 ACS.

Diaspora

The South American diaspora in the United States is comprised of more than 6.4 million individuals who were either born in South America or reported ancestry of a country in South America, according to tabulations from the U.S. Census Bureau 2022 American Community Survey (ACS).

The Colombian diaspora was the largest South American group in the United States; more than 1.6 million individuals either reported Colombian ancestry or ethnicity or were born in Colombia. Meanwhile, more than 1 million traced their origin to Ecuador. These two origin groups were among the 35 largest diaspora groups in the United States, ranking 24th and 35th, respectively.

Click here to see estimates of the top 35 diaspora groups in the United States in 2022.

Top Global Destinations

Globally, of the 17.6 million international migrants from South America, 49 percent resided elsewhere within South America, followed by about 23 percent in Europe and 22 percent in Northern America, according to United Nations Population Division estimates from mid-2020. About 3 percent resided in other parts of Latin America (Central America and the Caribbean).

Outside South America, the United States is the top destination for South American migrants, accounting for 20 percent of all migrants from the region. Spain is home to the next largest population of South Americans (13 percent), followed by Italy (3 percent), and Canada (2 percent).

Click here to view an interactive map showing where migrants from countries in South America and elsewhere have settled worldwide.

Remittances

South Americans living abroad and others with connections to the region sent more than $28.5 billion in remittances to South American countries via formal channels in 2023, according to World Bank estimates (see Figure 10). That represents a 49 percent increase from the $19.1 billion sent in 2018. (Actual overall remittance flows to the region are likely to be higher, as the World Bank has not published data on remittances to Venezuela since 2017.)

Four countries received the most estimated remittances sent to South America in 2023: Colombia ($10.2 billion), Ecuador ($5.1 billion), Brazil ($4.4 billion), and Peru (4.2 billion). That year, remittances accounted for just 0.2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Brazil and Uruguay (which received $122 million), compared to more than 4 percent of the GDP of Ecuador and Suriname (which received $155 million).

Figure 10. Annual Remittance Flows to South America, 2000-23

Notes: Data on remittances to Venezuela are not available since 2017. The 2023 figure is a World Bank estimate.
Source
: MPI tabulations of data from the World Bank Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), “Remittance Inflows,” December 2023 update, available online.

Click here to view an interactive chart showing annual remittances received by and sent to South American and other countries.

Sources

Bernal, Rafael. 2023. Biden Administration Expanding Immigration Paths for Ecuadorians. The Hill, October 18, 2023. Available online.

Chishti, Muzaffar and Kathleen Bush-Joseph. 2023. In the Twilight Zone: Record Number of U.S. Immigrants Are in Limbo Statuses. Migration Information Source, August 2, 2023. Available online.

Chishti, Muzaffar, Kathleen Bush-Joseph, and Colleen Putzel-Kavanaugh. 2024. Biden at the Three-Year Mark: The Most Active Immigration Presidency Yet Is Mired in Border Crisis Narrative. Migration Information Source, January 19, 2024. Available online.

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), Open Doors. 2023. Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. New York: IIE. Available online.

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

Migration Policy Institute (MPI), Migration Data Hub. N.d. Countries of Birth for U.S. Immigrants, 1960-Present. Accessed March 5, 2024. Available online.

---. N.d. Refugee and Asylum Seeker Populations by Country of Origin and Destination, 2000-2022. Accessed February 7, 2024. Available online.

---. N.d. Top Diaspora Groups in the United States, 2022. Accessed March 5, 2024. Available online.

---. N.d. U.S. Immigrant Population by State and County. Accessed January 29, 2024. Available online.

Turkewitz, Julie and Isayen Herrera. 2023. Why Are So Many Venezuelans Going to the United States? The New York Times. September 24, 2023. Available online.

United Nations Population Division. 2020. International Migrant Stock 2020: Destination and Origin. Available online.

U.S. Census Bureau. N.d. 2022 American Community Survey—Advanced Search: S0201 Selected Population Profile in the United States. Accessed February 27, 2024. Available online.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 2023. Count of Active DACA Recipients as of December 31, 2023. Available online.

---. 2023. USCIS Establishes Family Reunification Parole Process for Ecuador. Press release, November 15, 2023. Available online.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). 2024. CBP Releases February 2024 Monthly Update. Press release, March 22, 2024. Available online.

---. 2024. Nationwide Encounters. Updated February 13, 2024. Available online.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Immigration Statistics. 2023. 2022 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Washington, DC: DHS Office of Immigration Statistics. Available online.

Van Hook, Jennifer, Julia Gelatt, and Ariel G. Ruiz Soto. 2023. A Turning Point for the Unauthorized Immigrant Population in the United States. Migration Policy Institute (MPI) commentary, September 2023. Available online.