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Central American Immigrants in the United States

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Central American Immigrants in the United States

A display of Salvadoran national and cultural pride at the Salvadoran American Day Festival in Hempstead, New York.

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The United States is home to about 2.9 million immigrants from the Central American countries of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Immigration from Central America has grown rapidly in recent decades, but more than two of every five Central American immigrants lack legal immigration status while about one in ten resides in the United States under temporary humanitarian protection.

Overall, the Central American immigrant population faces substantial challenges in the United States including generally low levels of education, limited English proficiency, and an overall concentration in jobs that have experienced substantial employment losses during the economic crisis of the past three years.

Central American immigrants are heavily concentrated in California, Texas, and Florida but also account for a large share of the foreign-born population in places like the New Orleans and Washington, DC metropolitan areas (for more information on immigrants by state, please see the ACS/Census Data tool on the MPI Data Hub).

This spotlight focuses on Central American immigrants residing in the United States and examines the population's size, geographic distribution, and socioeconomic characteristics. The data used are the most recent available and come from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey (ACS), the 2000 Decennial Census (as well as earlier censuses), and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).

Click on the bullet points below for more information:

Size and Geographic Distribution

Defining the Foreign-Born Population
The U.S. Census Bureau defines the foreign born as individuals who were not entitled to U.S. citizenship at birth. The foreign-born population includes naturalized citizens, lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, legal nonimmigrants (including those on student, work, or certain other temporary visas), and persons residing in the country without authorization.

The terms "foreign born" and "immigrant" are used interchangeably.

 

Legal and Unauthorized Central American Immigrants

Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview

Size and Geographic Distribution

There were about 2.9 million foreign born from Central America residing in the United States in 2009.
There were 2,915,420 foreign born from Central America residing in the United States in 2009, accounting for 7.6 percent of the country's 38.5 million immigrants.

The Central American immigrant population in the United States has grown rapidly in recent decades, tripling from 345,655 in 1980 to 1.1 million by 1990 and nearly doubling to 2.0 million in 2000 (see Table 1). Between 2000 and 2009, the Central American immigrant population grew by nearly 890,000 – an increase similar to the population's growth of 910,000 during the 1990s. This growth has been mostly driven by immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, who accounted for 41.2 and 28.7 percent, respectively, of the total increase in the Central American born between 1980 and 2009.

 

Table 1. Total and Central American Foreign-Born Populations, 1960 to 2009

Year Total foreign born Central American born
Number Share of total
1960 9,738,091 48,949 0.5%
1970 9,619,302 113,913 1.2%
1980 14,079,906 345,655 2.5%
1990 19,797,316 1,106,761 5.6%
2000 31,107,889 2,020,368 6.5%
2009 38,517,104 2,915,420 7.6%

Source: Data for 2000 from the 2000 Decennial Census; data for 2009 from the American Community Survey 2009. Data for earlier decades from Gibson, Campbell, and Emily Lennon, U.S. Census Bureau, Working Paper No. 29, Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC., 1999. Available online.


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Two-thirds of Central American immigrants were from El Salvador and Guatemala.
In 2009, more than two-thirds (66.8 percent) of all Central American immigrants were from El Salvador (39.4 percent) and Guatemala (27.4 percent). By contrast, Salvadorans and Guatemalans accounted for less than one-quarter (23.9 percent) of Central American immigrants in the United States in 1960 (see Table 2). Incidentally, during the 1960s and 1970s Panamanians were the largest immigrant group from Central America.

The remaining one-third of Central American immigrants in 2009 were from Honduras (16.1 percent), Nicaragua (8.7 percent), Panama (3.6 percent), Costa Rica (3.0 percent), and Belize (1.7 percent). A small share of Central American immigrants (0.6 percent) listed their country of origin as "Central America."

Overall, Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants were among the top ten foreign-born groups in the United States in 2009.

 

Table 2. Central American Immigrants by Country of Origin, 1960 to 2009
  Belize Costa Rica El Salvador Guatemala Honduras Nicaragua Panama
  Number (1,000s) Share* Number (1,000s) Share* Number (1,000s) Share* Number (1,000s) Share* Number (1,000s) Share* Number (1,000s) Share* Number (1,000s) Share*
1960 2.8 5.7 5.4 11.1 6.3 12.9 5.4 11.0 6.5 13.3 9.5 19.4 13.1 26.7
1970 8.9 7.8 16.7 14.7 15.7 13.8 17.4 15.2 19.1 16.8 16.1 14.2 20.0 17.6
1980 14.4 4.2 29.6 8.6 94.4 27.3 63.1 18.2 39.2 11.3 44.2 12.8 60.7 17.6
1990 30.0 2.7 22.3 2.0 465.4 42.1 225.7 20.4 108.9 9.8 168.7 15.2 85.7 7.7
2000 42.1 2.1 71.9 3.6 817.3 40.5 480.7 23.8 282.9 14.0 220.3 10.9 105.2 5.2
2009 48.6 1.7 86.3 3.0 1,149.9 39.4 798.7 27.4 467.9 16.1 253.3 8.7 103.8 3.6
Notes: *Share of all Central American immigrants in year listed. Shares my not sum to 100 due to rounding and, in 2009, some immigrants listing only "Central America" as their country of birth.
Source: Data for 2000 from the 2000 Decennial Census; data for 2009 from the American Community Survey 2009. Data for earlier decades from Gibson, Campbell and Emily Lennon, US Census Bureau, Working Paper No. 29, Historical Census Statistics on the Foreign-Born Population of the United States: 1850 to 1990, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC., 1999. Available online.

 

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Over half of all Central American born resided in California, Texas, and Florida.
In 2009, California had the largest number of resident Central American immigrants with a total of 846,734, or 29.0 percent of the overall Central American-born population, followed by Texas (357,516, or 12.3 percent), and Florida (342,181, or 11.7 percent).

New York (230,941, or 7.9 percent), Maryland (132,046, or 4.5 percent), Virginia (125,824, or 4.3 percent), and New Jersey (122,467, or 4.2 percent) also had sizeable Central American immigrant populations.

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The Central American born accounted for over one in five immigrants in the District of Columbia and Louisiana.
The Central American born made up 29.0 percent of all immigrants in the District of Columbia and 22.3 percent in Louisiana. Over one in ten immigrants in Maryland (18.1 percent), Virginia (15.6 percent), Rhode Island (14.7 percent), North Carolina (12.1 percent), Nebraska (11.9 percent) and Arkansas (10.5 percent) were from Central America.

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Between 2000 and 2009, the size of the Central American immigrant population doubled or more in 18 states.
The Central American immigrant population increased by 100 percent or more in 18 states between 2000 and 2009. Most of these states had a relatively small share of Central American born to begin with, but several states have historically had rather large populations including Georgia, which saw a 120.4 percent increase, North Carolina, with an increase of 120.2 percent, and Maryland, which experienced a 99.6 percent increase in resident Central American immigrants. (See Table 3).

 

Table 3. Central American Immigrant Population by State, 2000 to 2009

  2000 2009 Percent change 2000-2009
Wyoming 161 785 387.6%
Indiana 6,342 17,491 175.8%
Idaho 1,221 3,349 174.3%
Tennessee 8,898 22,564 153.6%
Kentucky 3,520 8,801 150.0%
Missouri 5,115 11,883 132.3%
Alabama 5,475 12,324 125.1%
Georgia 38,371 84,555 120.4%
North Carolina 36,670 80,731 120.2%
New Mexico 2,841 6,195 118.1%
Minnesota 6,851 14,884 117.3%
Pennsylvania 10,282 22,006 114.0%
Iowa 4,648 9,879 112.5%
South Carolina 6,932 14,682 111.8%
Mississippi 1,970 4,104 108.3%
Oklahoma 4,921 10,149 106.2%
West Virginia 301 602 100.0%
Maryland 66,167 132,046 99.6%

Source: 2009 American Community Survey.


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Almost one in five Central American immigrants resided in the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area.
In 2009, the metropolitan area with the largest number of Central American born was Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA with 570,053 immigrants, or 19.6 percent of the total Central American immigrant population. This was followed by New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA (324,518, or 11.2 percent), Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL (248,715, or 8.6 percent), Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV (231,231, or 8.0 percent), Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX (195,113, or 6.7 percent), and San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA (100,739, or 3.5 percent).

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Nearly one-third of immigrants in the New Orleans Metropolitan Area were from Central America.
In 2009, the Central American born accounted for 30.9 percent of all immigrants in the New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, LA metropolitan area. They also accounted for 21.0 percent in Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV, 17.1 percent in Trenton-Ewing, NJ, 15.5 percent in Durham-Chapel Hill, NC, 15.3 percent in Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX, 14.1 percent in Richmond, VA, 12.9 percent in Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord, NC-SC, and 12.9 percent in Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA.

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There were 4.6 million self-identified members of the Central American diaspora residing in the United States in 2009.
Of the 4.6 million self-identified members of the Central American diaspora residing in the United States in 2009, 63.2 percent were born in Central America (excluding individuals born in Central America to at least one U.S.-born parent or who were native-born U.S. citizens at birth) and over one third (36.1 percent) were U.S. citizens at birth. A small share of immigrants with Central American ancestry (0.6 percent) was born elsewhere, mostly in Mexico.

Note: 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. To calculate the size of the Central American diaspora in the United States, we included all individuals who selected "Belizean," "Costa Rican," "Guatemalan," "Honduran," "Nicaraguan," "Panamanian," "Salvadoran," or "Central American" (either alone or in combination with another option) in response to the two ACS questions on ancestry.

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Legal and Unauthorized Central American Immigrants

One in every 10 unauthorized immigrants in 2009 was from Central America.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there were 1.3 million unauthorized immigrants from Central America in the United States in March 2009. Central Americans accounted for 11.7 percent of the 11.1 million estimated unauthorized immigrants residing in the United States, and just under half (about 45 percent) of the 2.9 million Central American immigrants in the United States were unauthorized.

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About 302,500 Central Americans reside in the United States under Temporary Protected Status.
The United States provides limited humanitarian protection on a temporary basis – known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) – to individuals fleeing unsafe or problematic circumstances in their home countries (or who are already present in the U.S. and cannot return home) but who fail to meet the formal threshold required for refugee or asylum status. The Secretary of Homeland Security and Secretary of State can issue TPS for a period of six to 18 months and can extend the period if conditions do not change in the country or origin. (Congress is also authorized to grant TPS directly, although it has not done so since 1990.)

TPS was extended to certain Salvadoran immigrants in 1990 as the country was embroiled in civil war. TPS was also granted for some Honduran and Nicaraguan immigrants in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998, but not for Salvadorans or Guatemalans, who instead benefited from a temporary stay on deportations after the disaster. TPS was then granted for Salvadorans following two devastating earthquakes in 2001. In May 2010 TPS was renewed for Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans and is valid through January 2012. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) estimates that there are 229,000 Salvadorans, 70,000 Hondurans, and 3,500 Nicaraguans currently residing in the United States under TPS.

The U.S. government has not yet responded to Guatemala's June 2010 request for TPS following a volcanic eruption and a severe tropical storm in that country. While it hasn't officially denied this request, the United States has resumed deportations to Guatemala.

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More than 606,000 Central American foreign born gained lawful permanent residence in the United States between 2000 and 2009.
Between 2000 and 2009, about 10.3 million immigrants obtained green cards, including 606,894 Central American born. Central American immigrants accounted for 4.2 percent (or 47,868) of the 1.1 million immigrants who received lawful permanent residence in 2009 alone.

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Nearly 400,000 Central American immigrants naturalized as U.S. citizens over the last decade.
Between 2000 and 2009, 397,899 Central Americans naturalized as U.S. citizens. They accounted for about one in 20, or 5.8 percent, of all naturalizations over the nine-year period.

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Overall, Central American immigrants were much less likely than other immigrant groups to be naturalized U.S. citizens.
Among the Central American foreign born, 30.2 percent were naturalized U.S. citizens, compared with 43.7 percent among the overall foreign-born population.

Panamanians (65.5 percent) and Belizeans (61.2 percent) had the highest naturalization rates of all Central American immigrant groups, while Salvadorans (27.9 percent), Guatemalans (24.0 percent), and Hondurans (21.3 percent) had the lowest naturalization rates. Naturalization rates among Costa Ricans (45.7 percent) and Nicaraguans (49.6 percent) were closer to the rate among the overall foreign born population.

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Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview

Over one-third of the Central American foreign born in the United States arrived in 2000 or later.
As of 2009, 35.8 percent of the 2.9 million Central American foreign born entered the country in 2000 or later. Of the remaining share of Central American immigrants, 28.0 percent entered between 1990 and 1999, 24.8 percent between 1980 and 1989, 7.6 percent between 1970 and 1979, and 3.9 percent prior to 1970.

By contrast, 31.6 percent of the 38.5 million total foreign born entered the country in 2000 or later with 27.9 percent entering between 1990 and 1999, 19.6 percent entering between 1980 and 1989, 11.0 percent between 1970 and 1979, and the remaining 9.9 percent prior to 1970.

Although a large portion of all Central American immigrants arrived in the United States in the past decade, there are substantial differences by country of origin. For example, while nearly half of Guatemalan (46.2 percent) and Honduran (44.4 percent) immigrants are recent arrivals, the shares of recent arrivals are much lower among immigrants from Belize (19.0 percent), Nicaragua (18.6 percent), and Panama (14.1 percent). The shares of recent arrivals among immigrants from El Salvador (32.1 percent) and Costa Rica (30.1 percent) are close to the group average.

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Central American immigrants were more likely than other immigrants and the native born to be working age adults.
Of the Central American immigrants residing in the United States in 2009, 79.3 percent were adults of working age (between 18 and 54-years-old), 14.5 percent were seniors (age 55 and older), and 6.3 percent were youth (under age 18).

Of the total foreign-born population in the United States in 2009, 68.7 percent were of working age, 24.1 percent were seniors, and 7.2 percent were youth. Among native-born U.S. citizens, 64.8 percent were of working age, 32.0 percent were seniors, and 35.2 percent were youth.

Among Central American immigrants, 82.5 percent of Hondurans, 80.9 percent of Guatemalans, 80.8 percent of Salvadorans, 76.4 percent of Nicaraguans, 69.6 percent of Belizeans, 67.7 percent of Costa Ricans, and 56.7 percent of Panamanians were adults of working age.

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Central American immigrant men outnumbered women in 2009.
Over half, or 53.8 percent, of Central American immigrants residing in the United States in 2009 were men, compared with 49.9 percent among all immigrant populations.

There are notable gender imbalances among the immigrant populations from several Central American countries. Men accounted for 61.2 percent of Guatemalan immigrants, for instance, and 54.8 percent of Honduran immigrants. By contrast, only 35.2 percent of Panamanian immigrants, 43.6 percent of Belizean immigrants, and 46.2 percent of Nicaraguan immigrants were men. Immigrant populations from other Central American countries were more gender balanced: 48.6 percent of Costa Rican immigrants and 52.5 percent of Salvadoran immigrants were men.

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Two-thirds of Central American immigrants in 2009 were limited English proficient.
Over two-thirds (67.7 percent) of Central American immigrants reported speaking English less than "very well," thus classifying them limited English proficient (LEP). This is substantially higher than the 52.0 percent among all foreign born age 5 and older who reported limited English proficiency in 2009. Moreover, 17.5 percent of Central American immigrants reported speaking no English at all, compared with 10.6 percent of all immigrants who reported the same.

The rates of limited English proficiency vary substantially by country of origin. For instance, 74.0 percent of Guatemalan, 71.8 percent of Honduran, and 71.5 percent of Salvadoran immigrants age 5 and older were LEP, compared with 59.5 percent of Nicaraguans and 46.2 percent of Costa Ricans. Just 26.7 percent of Panamanians and 8.0 percent of Belizeans were LEP. (English is widely spoken in Panama and is the national language of Belize.) About one-fifth of Guatemalan (21.0 percent), Honduran (20.3 percent), and Salvadoran (18.3 percent) immigrants reported speaking no English at all.

(Note: The term "limited English proficient" refers to any person age 5 and older who reported speaking English "not at all," "not well," or "well" on their survey questionnaire. Individuals who reported speaking only English or speaking English "very well" are considered proficient in English).

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Nearly half of Central American immigrant adults had not attained a high school diploma.
In terms of academic achievement, Central American immigrants were much less educated than other immigrants and the native born. In 2009, nearly half (48.0 percent) of Central American immigrants age 25 and older did not have a high school diploma, compared with 30.1 percent of the total foreign-born population and 10.0 percent of all native-born adults over the age of 25.

About one quarter (or 24.9 percent) of Central American immigrants, 22.9 percent of all immigrants, and 30.1 percent of native-born adults reported a high school diploma or the equivalent general education diploma (GED) as their highest level of education.

The share of adults with a high school education or less varied among Central American immigrant groups, ranging from 55.9 percent among Guatemalans, 55.5 percent among Salvadorans, and 50.3 percent among Hondurans to 23.6 percent among Nicaraguans, 19.3 percent among Costa Ricans, 12.9 percent among Belizeans, and 9.3 percent among Panamanians.

On the other end of the education continuum, 9.8 percent of Central American immigrants had a Bachelor's degree or higher, compared with 27.7 percent of all immigrants and 28.5 percent of native-born adults age 25 and older. Additionally, 17.3 percent of all Central American born had received some college education (at least one year) or an Associate's degree, compared with 19.3 percent of all immigrants and 31.3 percent of native born adults.

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Central American immigrant men and women were more likely to participate in the civilian labor force than were foreign-born men and women overall.
In 2009, Central American-born men (88.8 percent) and women (65.1 percent) age 16 and older were more likely to participate in the civilian labor force – i.e., to be employed or be seeking employment -- than were foreign-born men (80.0 percent) and women (57.4) overall. They were also more likely than native-born men (69.1 percent) and women (60.2 percent) to participate in the labor force.

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Employed Central American immigrants were heavily concentrated in construction, extraction, and repair occupations and in service jobs.
Among the 1.3 million Central American immigrant male workers age 16 and older in 2009, 39.9 percent were employed in construction, extraction and transportation occupations and 24.5 percent worked in service occupations (see Table 4).

Among the 803,000 Central American-born female workers age 16 and older in 2009, 42.3 percent reported working in service occupations and 12.9 percent were employed in administrative support occupations.

 

Table 4. Occupations of Employed Workers in the Civilian Labor Force Age 16 and Older by Gender and Origin, 2009

  Male Female Male Female
         
Persons age 16 and older employed in the civilian labor force 1,306,000 803,000 14,295,000 10,207,000
         
Total percent 100.0 100.0 100.0 100.0
Management,business, finance 4.4 5.8 10.4 10.3
Information technology 0.7 0.2 4.0 1.9
Other sciences and engineering 0.9 0.5 4.0 2.2
Social services and legal 0.6 1.3 1.1 1.9
Education/training and media/entertainment 1.2 3.7 3.4 7.1
Physicians 0.2 0.1 1.2 0.9
Registered nurses 0.1 0.9 0.4 3.4
Other health-care practitioners 0.4 1.4 1.1 3.0
Health-care support 0.3 3.9 0.6 5.4
Services 24.5 42.3 18.2 26.4
Sales 4.9 9.6 7.7 10.5
Administrativesupport 4.6 12.9 5.3 14.3
Farming, fishing, and forestry 1.8 1.2 2.8 1.3
Construction, extraction, and transportation 39.9 4.9 25.6 3.2
Manufacturing, installation, and repair 15.7 11.2 14.3 8.2

Source: 2009 American Community Survey.


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About one-fifth of Central American immigrants lived in poverty.
About one-fifth, or 20.1 percent, of Central American immigrants lived in a household with an annual income below the federal poverty line in 2009. The share of Central American immigrants living in poverty was substantially higher than that among the entire foreign-born population (17.3 percent) and the native born (13.6 percent).

The share of foreign-born Central Americans living in poverty varies by country of origin, and ranges from 25.7 percent among Hondurans and 24.1 percent among Guatemalans to 17.7 percent among Salvadorans, 16.5 percent among Belizeans, 14.3 percent among Nicaraguans, 14.2 percent among Panamanians, and 13.5 percent among Costa Ricans.

Note: Individuals residing in families with a total annual income of less than the federal poverty line are described as living in poverty. Whether an individual falls below the official poverty line depends not only on total family income, but also on the size of the family, the number of children, and the age of the head of household. The ACS reports total income over the 12 months preceding the interview date.

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About 1.5 million children under the age of 18 resided in a household with a Central American immigrant parent.
In 2009, about 1.5 million children under the age of 18 resided in a household with an immigrant parent born in Central America. Most of these children (90.6 percent) were native-born U.S. citizens.

Note: Includes only children who reside with at least one parent and households where either the household head or spouse is an immigrant from Central America.

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For more information about ACS data and methodology, click here.

Sources

Passel, Jeffrey S. and D'Vera Cohn. 2010. U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade. September 2010. Pew Hispanic Center. Available online.

Ruggles, J., Steven, Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. 2010. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. Available online.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. 2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Various tables. Available online.

Wasem, Ruth Ellen and Karma Ester. 2010. Temporary Protected Status: Current Immigration Policy and Issues. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. Available online.