For the first time in the most current wave of immigration, U.S. Census Bureau figures show that 70 percent of California’s Mexican population are U.S. citizens, blunting widespread belief the state is overrun by illegal immigrants.
The findings are part of new data that casts a spotlight on a steady demographic transition between 2000 and 2006, with the state leading the nation in the number of Mexican immigrants gaining citizenship.
California’s Mexican population, boosted by a boom in births, is moving steadily into citizenship, with Mexican-Americans comprising about 7.6 million of the state’s 36 million residents in 2006.
“California has reached a steady state with regard to immigration,” said Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California. “The number of new foreign-born arrivals is being offset by the number of babies who are being born here and the number of parents who are naturalizing.”
California does not break down birth records by Latino subgroups, but Mexicans are by far the largest group in the state according to census data.
The figures show Mexican-American citizenship in California increased by 3 percentage points from 67 percent in 2000 to 70 percent at the end of 2006.
They also show that roughly half of the 460,766 Mexican immigrants who became naturalized citizens nationwide between 2000 and 2006 were in California.
In Santa Clara County, the increase in citizens of Mexican ancestry due to birth and naturalization exceeds the growth in non-citizen immigrants by a 3-1 ratio this decade, census data shows.
Al Camarillo, a Stanford University historian who studies Chicano history and the scattering of Mexican immigrants across the country, said the decision to have children in the U.S. is a way for illegal immigrants to begin the process of assimilation.
“They realize that we’re not going back, that we’ve been here for a long time, our children are growing up here and we’re going to stay here—those kinds of calculations have gone on in the minds of Mexican-Americans for generations. At some point they make a decision, sometimes unconsciously, ‘We’re here, this is where our children are going to be raised and this is where we’re going to remain.’”
On the other hand, many see the large number of births to illegal immigrants as a serious concern. Based on birth rates for the overall foreign-born population, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that supports curbs on immigration, says there are between 287,000 and 363,000 births to illegal immigrants in the U.S. each year.
Those children, FAIR says, have a significant impact on hospitals, schools and other institutions, and constitute a major, but unknown, cost to taxpayers.
The transition of California’s Mexican population toward citizenship is not uniform across the state. Fast growing inland areas, such as Riverside County in Southern California and Contra Costa County in the Bay Area, are gaining immigrants more quickly than they are gaining Mexican-American citizens, a reverse of the situation in Santa Clara, Los Angeles and San Diego counties.
Camarillo, the Stanford professor, said the tenor of the nation’s immigration debate is pushing many Mexican immigrants to become citizens.