Communities in U.S.: Overview of Top Immigrant Groups in the United States

Ethnic communities in U.S.

Throughout history, immigration has influenced the United States’ economical, social, cultural, political processes and it is more and more often the subject of significant public debate.

Foreign-born communities are usually assimilated as numbers or statistics without considering their cultural heritage and the impact of their individual presence on certain groups. Each immigrant has a particular story, but since it is impossible to bring in the spotlight every one of them, let’s at least take a look at the major ethnic communities that currently live in the U.S., with a short overview of the immigration phenomenon in the last century.

In the last 100 years, the number of U.S. immigrants more than tripled, from 13,515,900 immigrants in 1910 (representing 14.7% of total U.S. population at that time) to 42,391,800 immigrants in 2014 (13.3% of total U.S. population). The major increase in U.S. immigration took place after 1970 mainly because of the abolishment of national-origin admission quotas in 1965. This resulted in a large-scale immigration from Latin America and Asia. Between 2013 and 2014, the foreign-born population increased by 1 million, or 2.5 percent.

According to MPI (Migration Policy Institute), the top 10 countries of origin of U.S. immigrants are:

1. Mexico 6. Vietnam
2. India 7. Cuba
3. China 8. Korea
4. Philippines 9. Dominican Republic
5. El Salvador 10. Guatemala

 

1. Mexico


Mexico flag

Mexican born immigrants represent 27.6% of the total immigrant population in the U.S.. The 11,7147,000 Mexicans living in the U.S. are by far the largest foreign-born group in the country. Nevertheless, in recent years, Mexico is no longer the top origin country for immigrants in the U.S., being surpassed by India and China. Most immigrants from Mexico settle in California (37%), Texas (21%), and Illinois (6%). Ironically, the land where nowadays Texas or California lay was originally owned by Mexicans but they lost it to U.S. in 1848 and 1854.

The majority of Mexican immigrants are of working age (18 to 64), but not all of them are actually employed (69% of Mexican immigrants were in the civilian labor force in 2014). According to MPI, the main work fields Mexican immigrants are employed in are: service occupations (31%); natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations (26%); production, transportation, and material-moving occupations (22%).

Because Mexico and the U.S. are neighbor countries, many Mexican immigrants visit their home quite frequently and they continue to consider the U.S. as a place that offers them a temporary job with better financial prospects. There are also entire Mexican families than move permanently to the U.S. leaving their home country behind.

Mexican immigrants and their descendants (the Mexican American diaspora) influenced and continue to shape the U.S. nation’s identity through their language, food, music and other cultural and social aspects.

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2. India


India flag

Even though it is currently the second best represented foreign-born community in the U.S. (5.2% of the total immigrant population), India has become the leading country of origin for new immigrants, with 147,500 Indians moving to U.S. in 2014 out of a total of 2,206,000 Indian born immigrants living in the U.S.. Most Indian immigrants settle in California, New Jersey or Illinois, but there is also a substantial community living and working in New York (almost 50,000 Indian born immigrants). Other metropolitan areas with Indian-born populations are San Francisco, Washington, Los Angeles, Dallas and Philadelphia.

A great number of those who leave India to make a life in the U.S. are students at institutions of higher learning or people with employment-based visas. Compared to other immigrant communities, Indians are more likely to have strong English language skills and work in fields such as IT, management, business, finance. Also, many Indian-born immigrants are granted U.S. legal permanent residency and more than half of them have their own households.

Indian food, Hindi feature films (the “Bollywood” phenomenon) or Indian inspired fashion and home decor are just a few of the cultural elements that Indian born immigrants bring to the local U.S. flavor. Even though Indian business men and women living in the U.S. don’t seem to still be faithful to their cultural inheritance, most of them live their personal lives according to Hindi traditions. They celebrate Indian religious holidays and arranged marriages continue to be the main way Indian immigrants build their families.

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3. China


China flag

131,800 people from China immigrated in the U.S. in 2014, the entire Chinese immigrant community in the country totaling over 1,930,000 people (4.6% of the total immigrant population in the U.S.). Back in the 1840s, the first wave of Chinese born immigrants was lured to America by the illusion of a Gold Mountain and the prospects of easily becoming rich. Once arrived in the foreign country, Chinese immigrants not only didn’t become rich, but they couldn’t afford to return back home or send money to bring their families along. In order to survive, they had to take low-skilled jobs as manual laborers in mining, construction, agriculture, manufacturing, or service industries. After the Chinese Exclusion Act was implemented in 1882, the number of Chinese immigrants declined dramatically, but the ones that were already in the U.S. built some of the strongest foreign-born communities: Chinatowns. These served as second homes for the Chinese immigrants that couldn’t afford to go home.

In 1943, the immigration restrictions were abolished and a new wave of Chinese immigrants has come to the U.S. ever since. Most of the recent Chinese born immigrant population has high education and is employed in work fields such as management, business, science, and arts. Chinese Americans nowadays have a great impact on U.S. culture, especially in the fashion, architecture, literature, film and music industries. Also, Chinatowns have kept their traditional flavor and represent a constant touristic destination for non-Chinese Americans.

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4. Philippines


Philippines flag

Another important and well represented group of Asian U.S. immigrants are the Filipinos. They take a share of over 4.5% of the entire immigrant population in the United States. What sets the Philippines apart from other top immigrant origin countries is its history with the U.S.. The first wave of Filipinos arrived in the United States following the U.S. annexation of the Philippines in 1899. Thus, Filipinos were nationals and they were granted access freely. Furthermore, Filipino students were offered scholarships to study at U.S. colleges and universities. Between 1934 and 1945, Filipino migration to the United States slowed dramatically due to an act which committed the U.S. to grant Philippine independence. As a consequence of Filipinos no longer being nationals, the United States placed quotas on immigration from the islands to only 50 per year, which was doubled to 100 per year in 1945.

In the post World War II period, many Filipinos arrived in the United States to train as nurses and other health-care workers and their numbers increased ever since. According to MPI, in 2014, there were 1,926,000 immigrants originating from the Philippines, most of them living in California. Filipino immigrants are more likely to become naturalized U.S. citizens (68%) compared to other immigrant groups (47%). They also have much higher education rates and they are usually employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations. Many Filipino women immigrants work in the U.S. as registered nurses.

The Filipino diaspora keeps a close relationship with the Philippines by sending money home and supporting many charitable enterprises there. Most Filipino humanitarian organizations in the United States have as core missions the development of health care and education systems, aid for the development of the Philippines etc.

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5. El Salvador


El Salvador flag

U.S. immigrants born in El Salvador came to the country in different waves throughout time due to various reasons, such as civil wars (in the 1980), natural disasters (in the 2000s), insufficient land, family reunifications, limited job opportunities and low wages. In 2014, there were 1,315,000 Salvadoran immigrants in the United Stated, representing 3.1% of the total foreign born population. Most Salvadoran American groups are concentrated in California, Texas, Maryland, New York and Virginia. If we consider the fact that the country of El Salvador has a surface 500 times smaller compared to China and that China’s population is 200 times larger, the number of Salvadoran immigrants is impressive, almost equaling the number of Chinese Americans. Actually, about one of every five Salvadorans resides in the United States!

Salvadoran immigrants are more likely to have limited English language proficiency and no high school education compared to other foreign born communities. Thus, they are mostly employed in the construction, extraction, and transportation industries. Most of those who immigrated in the United States in the 1980s wave started opening their own small businesses in construction, restaurant and cleaning industries.

The Salvadoran diaspora (or the Salvis, as they call themselves) takes pride in its cultural heritage, especially in speaking the unique language of Salvadoran Voseo Spanish and the Salvadoran slang called Salvadoran Caliche. U.S.-Salvadorans have created their own identity and insular community and they tend to interact as little as possible with outsiders. Salvadoran immigrants have their own banks, doctors, places to spend time with their nationals and places to eat traditional Salvadoran food. The best known representation of Salvadoran culture in the mainstream United States is pupusas, El Salvador’s national dish. In areas where the Salvadoran communities are concentrated, you can find many pupuserias (restaurants serving pupusas and other Salvadoran traditional food) and you can assist to large events celebrating different traditional holidays from El Salvador. In the state of New York and in Maryland, the government even recognizes August 6 (New York) and August 5 (Maryland) as Day of the Salvadoran American.

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6. Vietnam


Vietnam flag

Most of the 1,292,000 Vietnamese immigrants in the United States arrived in the country after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. They represent 3% of the total foreign born population in the U.S. and are mainly settled in California, Texas and Washington State.

U.S. immigrants born in Vietnam generally have limited English proficiency and are employed in service occupations. Nevertheless, a quarter of the Vietnamese immigrants that are involved in the civilian labor force have jobs in the management, business, science and art sectors.

Besides overcoming language barriers and psychological post-war trauma, the Vietnamese immigrants had to face many cultural shocks when arriving in the United States. For example, in the Vietnamese culture, straightforwardness in expressing attitudes is considered impolite. Also, in Vietnam, corporal punishment is used to educate children whereas in the United States it is considered child abuse.

Vietnamese immigrants preserve their traditional culture by speaking and teaching their children the Vietnamese language, by living in extended families and by celebrating Vietnamese holidays, when they wear traditional dresses. Similar to Salvadorans, Vietnam immigrants opened their own restaurants in the U.S. where they serve traditional Vietnamese food, such as sticky rice cakes.

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7. Cuba


Cuba flag

Cuban migration to the United States was facilitated throughout history by a series of acts that provided safe transport, admission and residence in the U.S. for Cubans wishing to depart their country. In December 2014, the migration agreements between Cuba and the United States were normalized and Cuban immigrants are now required to seek admission through the same immigration pathways that apply for nationals from other countries. Based on data provided by MPI, 1,173,000 Cuban immigrants resided in the United States in 2014, representing a share of 2.8% of the total immigrant population.

Most Cubans leave their country to move to Florida (77%), where they either reunite with members of their family that previously immigrated in the U.S. or they get employed in sales and office occupations, in production, transportation and material moving. The majority of recent Cuban immigrants don’t speak English very well and less than a quarter of them have a bachelor’s degree or higher education.

The local culture of Miami, Tampa or Union City (where many Cuban-Americans live) was visibly impacted by Cuban cuisine, drinks, entertainment, fashion and cigar making. On the other hand, the Cuban immigrants themselves were inevitably influenced by the American culture. Being a well assimilated community, the Cuban-Americans tend to reserve traditional cooking and other local customs for special occasions.

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8. Korea


South Korea flag

Most Korean immigrants in the United States come from South Korea, with a very small minority arriving from North Korea. In 2014, the Migration Policy Institute reported a number of 1,080,000 Korean born people residing in the U.S.. This represents 2.5% of the total foreign born community living in the country.

Koreans arrived in the United States in three waves, determined to leave their country because of political, military and economic reasons. The first wave, in the early 1900s, consisted mostly of male laborers that came to America to work on the sugar plantations. After the Korean War and the U.S.-South Korean military alliance in 1951, new arrivals were mostly women and children, refugees, war orphans or simply professionals and students seeking a better life. In the 1960s, another wave of Koreans started migrating toward the United States, mainly as a consequence of the U.S. Immigration Act which abolished any national-origin quotas.

Koreans moving to U.S. ever since are generally well educated, with over half of them having a bachelor’s or a higher degree. They usually get employed in management, business, science, and arts occupations. Also, many young Koreans are students at U.S. universities. Due to improvement in the economic and political conditions in South Korea, a small but growing number of Korean families decide return to their home country.

Key states hosting Korean immigrants are California, New York and New Jersey. The Korean diaspora is concentrated mainly in so called Koreatowns (or Little Korea), where the main spoken language is Korean and the restaurants are based on Korean national cuisine. Through its unique and bold flavors, its spicy oddities (such as kimchi), noodle dishes, fish cakes or fermented pastas, the Korean cuisine is more and more present in the American food industry.

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9. Dominican Republic


Dominican Republic flag

Under 1 million people from the Dominican Republic reside in the United States, but if we consider the total population of this origin country (under 10 million people), it is impressive to realize that 1 of every 10 persons born in the Dominican Republic is living in the United States. More specifically, most U.S. immigrants from the Dominican Republic are concentrated in New York, Florida, Massachusetts and New Jersey.

Most Dominicans immigrating in the United States have limited English language proficiency, lack a bachelor’s degree or a higher level of education and are employed in service occupations. Nevertheless, in New York City, an increasing number of Dominican entrepreneurs have made their ways in different industries, such as the bodega, supermarket, taxi and black car industries.

The Dominican diaspora stands out especially through its colorful traditional cuisine, including red and green peppers, plantains, several kinds of fried meat pies and stews of meat, potatoes and vegetables. Food is integrated in the Dominican culture and immigrants really make an effort to maintain the authenticity of the dishes in the restaurants they opened in the U.S.. The Dominican community has also created itself an identity in American music (with signature meringue and bachata tunes), sports (especially baseball and tennis), literature (through author Junot Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008) and fashion (mostly due to Oscar de la Renta, a well known fashion designer born in the Dominican Republic).

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10. Guatemala


Guatemala flag

People migrating from Guatemala represent 2.2% of the total foreign born population in the United States. The 916,000 Guatemalans are mainly located in California, Texas and Florida and arrived in the country as refugees escaping Guatemala’s civil war (1960-1996) or, more recently, simply seeking a better life as their home country continues to face socioeconomic problems and natural disasters.

Having a lower educational attainment and limited knowledge of English language in general, Guatemalan immigrants work predominantly in service occupations, natural resources, construction, maintenance, production, transportation, and material-moving occupations.

Since Guatemalans themselves are a very culturally diverse group of people, with 23 distinct ethnic groups, whose languages are different, the impact of this immigrant community on the United States’ culture is hard to quantify. Many Guatemalan immigrants keep their home country traditions alive, but there are also younger Guatemalans that tend to fusion with the general Hispanic community in the U.S. or even with the American culture and lifestyle altogether.

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