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"Latino Immigrants in Los Angeles: A Portrait from the 1990 Census,"

by Paul Ong & Abel Valenzuela, Jr. March/April 1995 issue of Poverty & Race

Reasoned analysis of authoritative data sources has been in short supply in recent debates over immigration. Skewed estimates and dubious extrapolations have been bandied about in a discourse that has become, at times, increasingly illogical. While this country has every reason to consider its immigration policies carefully, the current climate of blame, fear and hyperbole has not afforded the issue of immigration the proper consideration it deserves.

Recently released data from the 1990 Census, the Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS), finally allow for a comprehensive analysis of Latino immigrants... . While Census PUMS data are not flawless, because of the sheer volume of people enumerated (over 440,000 respondents in Los Angeles County alone) and the attempts at completeness, these data form the "gold standard" in population matters.

Latino Immigrants:
How Many?

The 1990 Census counted a total of 3,306,116 Latinos in Los Angeles County. Of these, 1,511,744 were Latinos born in the US. Thus, the US Born Latinos were slightly under half (45.7%) the total Latino population. 1,794,372 Immigrant Latinos in the County in 1990 are predominantly of Mexican origin, although there are 315,798 Central Americans included in that figure.

Estimating the Undocumented: The PUMS data offer a new opportunity to estimate the size of the undocumented population, in that they are based on an actual enumeration of people residing in the county, with information about birthplace and date of arrival to the US included. By a process of elimination, in which those Latinos who are not likely to be undocumented are eliminated from the total Census figure, we can approximate the size of the undocumented population.

Of the total number of Latino immigrants in the County, 1,072,825 had amved prior to 1982. Thus, they would have either arrived with full documentation, or should have applied for the amnesty provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986; there is no reason why any significant portion of this pre-1982 group should, by 1990, still have been undocumented.

Of the remaining number, data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service provide a basis for refining the Census data. Between 1982 and 1990, the INS reported 273,282 Latinos admitted to the US with documents who indicated their intention to ultimately reside in the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan region. In addition, the INS reported a total of 190,983 Special Agricultural Worker (SAW) applicants (a post-1982 amnesty program for agricultural workers) from the Los Angeles-Long Beach region.

Of the total 3,306,116 Latinos enumerated in the Census of 1990, a total of 257,280 cannot be accounted for as US Born or presumably documented immigrants, hence may be assumed to be undocumdnted. This figure indicates that approximately 7% of the total Latino population might be undocumented in 1990. Because the PUMS data do not distinguish between documented and undocumented immigrants, the rest of this report will present data on all Immigrant Latinos.

Labor Force Participation

High Labor Force Participation:
Latino male immigrants are the most active participants in the Los Angeles work force: their labor force participation rate far exceeds that of Anglo, Black, Asian or US Born Latino males. Fully 86% of Immigrant Latino males age 16 and older participate in the labor force, compared to 77.8% for Anglo, 76.2% for US Born Latino, 69.7% for Black and 75.3% for Asian males of the same age.

Low Rates of Not in Labor Force: Latino Immigrant males are the least likely to leave the labor force: only 14% occupied the status of Not in Labor Force for 1990, much lower than the 22.2% of Anglo, 23.8% of US Born Latino, 30.8% of Black and 24.7% of Asian males age 16 and older.

Hours Worked: Labor force activity is also measured in hours worked per week. A higher percent of Immigrant Latino males worked 35 or more hours per week than did males of any other group: 67.5% of such males worked 35 or more hours per week, compared to 62.5% of Anglo males, 56.8% of US Born Latino males, 50.2% of Black males and 60.5% of Asian males.

Private Sector: The private sector of the economy is the engine of economic growth. Immigrant Latino males are, by far, much more likely to be employed in the private sector than any other group: 76.8% worked in the private sector, compared to 59% of Anglo, 64.2% of US Born Latinos, 51.7% of Black males and 66.2% of Asian males.

Public Sector: Immigrant Latino males were, by far, the least likely to work in public sector jobs, at the federal, state, county, city or special district level. Only 3.2% of Latino Immigrant males worked in government jobs, much lower than the 9.2% of Anglo, 11.1% of US Born Latino, 17.7% of Black and 9% of Asian males.

Female Labor Force Participation: Although policy makers tend to focus exclusively on male labor force status, female labor force activity should also be considered. Females of all groups have lower labor force participation rates than males. While the rates for male participation varied quite a bit (ranging from a high of 86% to a low of 69.7%), female rates are grouped more closely together. Latina Immigrant females had the lowest rate of labor force participation, but the 49.2% rate was only slightly lower than the 54.8% of Anglo females, 53.7% of US Born Latina, 51.5% of Black and 54.8% of Asian females.

Even though the Immigrant Latina rate is the lowest, it should be borne in mind that Immigrant Latina females are many times more likely to be married with children than Anglo, US Born Latina or Black. From that perspective, Immigrant Latina participation rates are extraordinary.

Income, Poverty
and Public Assistance

Low Income:
For all their activity in the labor force and economy, Immigrant Latinos are poorly rewarded. Their average household income of $29,989 was much lower than that of any other group: $52,375 for Anglo, $43,777 for US Born Latino, $32,813 for Black and $49,042 for Asian households.

High Poverty: Once again, in spite of being the most active element in the labor force, Immigrant Latinos have the highest poverty rate of any group: 24.2% of Immigrant Latino adults live in poverty. By way of contrast, only 7.8% of Anglo adults, 13.2% of US Born Latino adults, 19.2% of Black adults and 13.5% of Asian adults live in poverty.

Low Public Assistance: While there is a widely disseminated image that Immigrant Latinos are welfare abusers, different profile. Immigrant Latinos were by far the least likely to receive Public Assistance: Immigrant Latino adults receiving Public Assistance represented only 16.9% of linmigrant Latino adults in poverty. By contrast, Anglo adults receiving Public Assistance represented 41.7% of Anglo adults in poverty; US Born Latino adults receiving Public Assistance represented 50.4% of such adults in poverty; Black adults receiving Public Assistance were 64.6% of Black adults in poverty; and Asian adults receiving Public assistance represented 48.8% of such adults in poverty.

Immigrant Latino adults receive the least income, yet have the least propensity, by far, to utilize Public Assistance programs.


Couples With Children:
Immigrant Latino households are, by far, more likely to be composed of the classic nuclear family-a couple with children-than are households from any other group. Fully 49.6% of Immigrant Latino households are made up of Couples with Children. This is much higher than the 18.4% of Anglo, 30.7% of US Born Latino, 16.8% of Black and 38.4% of Asian households.

Non Family and Primary Single: In part because of their propensity to form Couple with Children households, Immigrant Latinos are the least likely to form a household composed of Non Family (unrelated adults in the same housing unit) or Primary Single (adult living alone). Only 19.5% of Immigrant Latino households were of the Non Family and Primary Single type. By contrast, 48.1% of Anglo, 31.9% of US Born Latino, 45.1% of Black and 30.4% of Asian households were composed of the Non Family or Primary Single type.

Divorced Households: Immigrant Latino households were the least likely to be composed of a divorced householder. Only 3.7% of Immigrant Latino households consisted of a divorced householder. This is much lower than the 11.2% of Anglo, 8.1% of 135 Born Latino, 13.6% of Black and 4.4% of Asian households.


Adult High School Non-Completion:
Immigrant Latino adults, age 25 and older, usually come from the rural areas of Mexico and Latin America, where elementary school education is often all that is available. Thus, when enumerated in the 1990 Census, Immigrant Latino adults had the highest percent of High School Non-Completion: 70.5% of Immigrant Latino adults did not complete high school. This is a much higher percent than among Anglo adults (14.4%), US Born Latino adults (35.3%), Black adults (25.4%), or Asian adults (20.7%).

Immigrant Latinos
& Immigrant Anglos:
A Comparison

California's metamorphosis into a virtual nation-state, was a product of people meeting resources, the values, dreams and hard work of millions of individuals woven into policy. From 1940 to 1970, the immigrants who nearly tripled the state's population were considered an essential asset. To accommodate them, the state built roads, aqueducts, freeways, schools and the world's premier public university system.

The foundation of post-World War II California was laid with civic money and a broadly shared civic consensus to invest in the new population and the future. The immigrant population, and its children, were provided with resources for commerce, development and research, which, when combined with their vigor and character, created wealth.

The Anglo population was, at the start of World War II, at the start of World War II, very similar to the Immigrant Latino population of 1990 in its income, education, work ethic and family structure. Some comparison may be instructive. The Anglo data are taken from the 1940 Census Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS) for the state of California.

Recent Arrivals: California has long had a very mobile population. Since its incorporation as a state in 1850, California growth has been largely a product of people moving into the state from other areas. This is true for the Anglo population as well as for the Latino. In 1940, 64.9% of the Anglo population had moved into the state from another area. In 1990, a similar percent of Latinos were also immigrants: 54.3% moved in, this time from another country.

Labor Force Participation: The Anglo male in 1940 had a high rate of particIpation in the labor force: 81.5% were active in the work force. In 1990, Immigrant Latino males had a similar, and slightly higher, rate of participation, 86%.

High Poverty: Poverty data were not available for 1940, buteven in 1950, with the Post World War II economic boom well under way, 25.5% of the Anglo population lived in poverty. Forty years later, in 1990, a nearly identical, but slightly lower, percent of Immigrant Latinos live in poverty: 24.2%.

Strong Families: In 1990, 32.9% of Anglo households were composed of Couples with Children. Immigrant Latino households in 1990 are more likely to be composed of Couples with Children: 49.6% of Immigrant Latino households are so composed.

High School Non-Completion: A fact often forgotten is that in 1940, 61.5% of Anglo adults did not graduate from high school. While the rate for Immigrant Latinos in 1990 is higher, at 70.5%, the two rates surprisingly close.

A Final Word

Today's Immigrant Latinos are, in their values and behaviors, very much like the earlier generation of immigrating Anglos who benefited from an exuberant civic spirit. Investing in a youthful, hard-working, forward-looking population was a wise decision in the 1940s and 1950s, and is still the wisest approach to a more prosperous future for all.

Paul Ong , a member of PRRAC Social Science Advisory Board, is Associate Professor of Urban Planning at UCLA.
Abel Valenzuela, Jr. is Assistant Professor at UCLA s Cesar Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicano/a Studies. Prof Valenzuela also has a related study, “Compatriots or Competitors? A Study of Job Competition Between the Foreign-born and U.S.-born in Los Angeles, 1970-1980,” scheduled to appear in the Winter 1995 issue of the New England Journal of Public Policy.


What follows is a somewhat shortened version (and without charts or footnotes) of a study of the same title, published by the Alta California Policy Research Center (555 Flower St., Los Angeles, CA 90021, 213/629-2471). Contact them to obtain the complete report.


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