February 9, 2017

20 metro areas are home to six-in-ten unauthorized immigrants in U.S.

Most of the United States’ 11.1 million unauthorized immigrants live in just 20 major metropolitan areas, with the largest populations in New York, Los Angeles and Houston, according to new Pew Research Center estimates based on government data.

The analysis shows that the nation’s unauthorized immigrant population is highly concentrated, more so than the U.S. population overall. In 2014, the 20 metro areas with most unauthorized immigrants were home to 6.8 million of them, or 61% of the estimated nationwide total. By contrast, only 36% of the total U.S. population lived in those metro areas.

But the analysis also shows that unauthorized immigrants tend to live where other immigrants live. Among lawful immigrants – including naturalized citizens and noncitizens – 65% lived in those top metros.

By far the biggest unauthorized immigrant populations were in the New York and Los Angeles metro areas (1.2 million and 1 million, respectively). No other metro area approached a million. Among the top 20 areas, the smallest unauthorized immigrant populations included Orlando (110,000) and Austin (100,000). 

Five of the 20 metros with the largest unauthorized immigrant populations are in California: Los Angeles, Riverside-San Bernardino, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose. Three – Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin – are in Texas.

Some of these areas could be affected by the Trump administration’s promise to take action against localities that do not cooperate with federal officials in identifying unauthorized immigrants. The president’s executive order promises to cut federal funds to these “sanctuary jurisdictions.” Mayors in several big cities have said they will not comply with the order.

The top 20 metropolitan areas for unauthorized immigrants have been remarkably consistent over the past decade, according to the Center’s analysis. Nineteen of the 20 top metropolitan destinations for unauthorized immigrants in 2014 ranked among the top 20 each year over the previous decade.

The Census Bureau dataset used for this analysis does not separate cities from the larger metro areas that contain them in all cases. But such a distinction is possible for 11 of the top 20 metro areas. Within those areas, the cities with the largest unauthorized immigrant populations include New York City, with an estimated 525,000 unauthorized immigrants; Los Angeles, with an estimated 375,000; and Chicago, with an estimated 140,000. Other cities with available data are Miami (55,000), Denver (55,000), Philadelphia (50,000), Boston (35,000), San Francisco (35,000), Washington, D.C., (25,000) and Seattle (20,000).

Among the top 20 metro areas, only one city for which data were available – Phoenix – was home to a majority of the unauthorized immigrants in that metropolitan area, with about 140,000 out of a total 250,000. In the others, most of the unauthorized immigrants living in the metro area lived outside the borders of the largest city.

The Center’s analysis relies on augmented data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, using the same residual method as its previous reports on unauthorized immigrants. Unauthorized immigrants include people who either crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas.

Because these estimates are from a sample, they have margins of error, so some apparent differences in unauthorized immigrant populations between metros or cities may not actually be significantly different. In 150 of the 155 metro areas analyzed, individual metro areas do not differ in rank from those immediately below them. The metro areas that do differ in rank from those immediately below them are New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington and San Francisco.

Nationally, unauthorized immigrants made up 3.5% of the total population in 2014. The Philadelphia metro area is the only one of the top 20 metropolitan areas for unauthorized immigrants that had a lower share, the Boston metro area had a roughly equal share and the rest had a higher share than that, including 8.7% in the Houston metro and 8% in the Las Vegas metro.

Unauthorized immigrants account for about one-in-four foreign-born U.S. residents. They make up a somewhat higher share of immigrants in the Houston (37%), Dallas (37%), Atlanta (33%), Phoenix (37%), Las Vegas (35%), Denver (37%) and Austin (34%) metro areas. They make up a somewhat lower share of all immigrants in the New York (19%), Miami (18%), San Francisco (17%) and San Jose (17%) metro areas.

Note: A complete table based on data for the 155 metropolitan areas in the dataset that had foreign-born populations of at least 20,000 people – enough to provide a reliable estimate – can be found here and in this Excel sheet. The Center’s methodology for estimating unauthorized immigrant populations can be found here

For an interactive graphic showing unauthorized immigrant population estimates and trends for the U.S., states and countries of birth, click here.

Topics: Immigration, Immigration Trends, Migration, Population Geography, Population Trends, Unauthorized Immigration

  1. Photo of Jeffrey S. Passel

    is a senior demographer at Pew Research Center.

  2. Photo of D’Vera Cohn

    is a senior writer/editor focusing on immigration and demographics at Pew Research Center.