Immigration in Houston

Immigrant populations flourish throughout our communities, but declining naturalization rates highlight growing issues 

While immigrants from around the world find a promising home in Houston, naturalization rates are slow to keep up with public sentiment.

Why immigration matters to Houston

Immigrants play a pivotal role in the Houston area’s population growth and diversity. In addition to the artistic and cultural contributions made by immigrants, immigrants add to our labor force and generate demand for goods and services within our local economy, helping our region remain a vibrant place to live, and many of our best friends, coworkers and neighbors are people from around the world. But while Houstonian attitudes toward immigration are positive and improving, there remains a major need for resources and “welcoming plans” that help newcomers settle in and thrive.

When our communities come together armed with the right perspective, we can develop stronger resources and initiatives to help all members of our society prosper.

The data

Positive attitudes toward immigration prevail throughout our region

Across both the nation and the three-county area, people have a mostly positive perception of immigrants and immigration. The majority of Americans (62%) say immigrants strengthen the country “because of their hard work and talents.”1  

About 80% of residents across Fort Bend, Harris and Montgomery counties think that immigrants that came to the U.S. illegally should be given a path to citizenship granted they speak English and have no criminal record, with the trend mostly positive throughout the region over time. 

Characteristics of the foreign-born population

The foreign-born population is comprised of naturalized citizens, legal permanent residents, temporary residents and residents who are unauthorized immigrants. Here we see the share of naturalized citizens compared to those who are non-citizens within the immigrant population. 

The citizenship status of the foreign-born population in the three-county area varies considerably. Fort Bend County mirrors the nation, with about half of the foreign-born population becoming naturalized citizens, while Texas, Harris County and Montgomery County see considerably higher rates of foreign-born residents who remain non-citizens. 

The naturalized population

When a foreign-born resident becomes naturalized, that means they have become a legal citizen of the United States and now have all the same constitutional rights and civic responsibilities as a native-born citizen, including the right to vote. To become a naturalized citizen, immigrants must meet certain requirements, such as completing a period of lawful permanent residence (five years), demonstrating basic proficiency in English and knowledge of U.S. history and government, and passing a background check. Naturalized immigrants also tend to obtain better economic outcomes, higher incomes and higher homeownership rates compared to non-citizens.2

Naturalization rates

Between 2010 and 2017, the volume of petitions filed for naturalization increased from 710,544 to 986,851 in the United States. Meanwhile, the processing time for a citizenship application has more than doubled to over 10 months.3

An estimated 288,223 immigrants are eligible to naturalize across the three-county area, with the vast majority located within Harris County (243,568) compared to Fort Bend (31,330) and Montgomery counties (13,325).4 

As wait times increase, the number of residents achieving naturalization in Texas and the Houston metro area has begun to decline since peaking in 2015, with numbers dropping to their lowest levels since 2010. 

Of the 15,120 immigrants who naturalized in 2017, 25.6% were from Mexico (3,878), followed by 19.6% from Other countries (2,956), 7.4% from Vietnam (1,120), 7.3% from India (1,100), 7.1% from El Salvador (1,074), 4.2% from Pakistan and Nigeria (640 and 638 respectively), 4% from China (602), 2.9% from the Philippines (441), and 2.8% from Colombia (429). 

Unauthorized population makeup

There are approximately 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, about 24% of the total immigrant population. About 14% of the unauthorized population, around 1.6 million, live in Texas. It is estimated that Harris County has 412,000 unauthorized immigrants, much more than that in Fort Bend County (36,000) and Montgomery County (25,000).5  

The share of unauthorized immigrants by years of residence is fairly evenly distributed across the three-county area.  Fort Bend County has the highest percentage of newly unauthorized immigrants who have been in the country for less than five years (21%), compared to Harris (18%) and Montgomery (15%) counties. Though Montgomery County has the highest percentage of unauthorized here for 5–9 years (28%), compared to Fort Bend (21%) and Harris (20%) counties.

The distribution of unauthorized population by age is fairly consistent across the nation, state and three-county area, with the majority of unauthorized residents (about 50%) ranging from 25 to 44 years of age. Unauthorized residents under the age of 16 make up the lowest share across the board, with Fort Bend County hosting the greatest amount at 9%. 

Region of birth, however, varies quite a bit between the nation, state and three-county area.  The largest region of birth among the unauthorized population is Mexico and Central America. Fort Bend County contains a significantly higher percentage of unauthorized Asian residents. Meanwhile, Mexico is the most common birthplace for unauthorized residents in all three counties, with Montgomery County having the highest rate at 86%. 

Resources

References:

  1. Jones, Bradley. “Majority of Americans continue to say immigrants strengthen the U.S.Pew Research Center, last modified January 31, 2019.
  2. Enchautegui, Maria E. and Linda Giannarelli. ”The Economic Impact of Naturalization on Immigrants and CitiesUrban Institute (2015).
  3. Rand, Doug. “The State of New American CitizenshipBoundless Immigration (2019).
  4. Center for the Study of Immigration Integration. “Eligible-To-Naturalize Populations [interactive map] University of Southern California, (2016).
  5. Migration Policy Institute. “Unauthorized Immigrant Population Profiles”. Data Hub, Migration Policy Institute.