South American Immigrants in the United States
As a group, South American immigrants are better educated, less likely to enter the United States as refugees, and more likely to enter as immediate family members than the overall foreign-born population. Despite some differences, South Americans closely mirrored many trends in the overall foreign-born population, including age, arrival period, naturalization rates, and occupations. A closer examination of South American immigrants, however, reveals a great deal of variation by country of birth.
This article focuses on South American immigrants residing in the United States, examining the population's size, geographic distribution, admission categories, and demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. Data are from the US Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), the 2000 Decennial Census (as well as earlier censuses), and the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).
Size and Geographic Distribution
Modes of Entry and Legal Status
Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview
Size and Geographic Distribution
In 2011, more than 2.7 million South American immigrants resided in the United States, representing close to 7 percent of all immigrants.
In the past 50 years, both the number of South American immigrants and their share of the total foreign-born population have increased. In 1960, South Americans represented less than 1 percent of all immigrants living in the United States. As shown in Table 1, this share has increased steadily in every subsequent decade. This increase has happened along large increases in immigration from other regions, such as Central America, the Caribbean, and Asia.
South America made up the smallest region of origin of all Latin American immigrants in 2011.
Between 2000 and 2010, South American immigrants were the second-fastest growing segment of the Latin American immigrant population behind Central Americans.
The top countries of origin for South American immigrants in 2011 were Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil.
Nearly two-thirds of all South American immigrants resided in four states: Florida, New York, New Jersey, and California.
Other states with South American-born populations greater than 100,000 were Massachusetts (113,100, or 4 percent) and Texas (109,600, or 4 percent).
Nearly half of all South American-born immigrants lived in two major metropolitan areas: greater New York and Miami.
Other metropolitan areas with South American-born populations greater than 60,000 included the greater Washington, DC (132,900, or 5 percent), Los Angeles, CA (117,300, or 4 percent), Boston, MA (89,300, or 3 percent), and Orlando, FL (78,100, or 3 percent) metropolitan areas.
Also of note, South Americans made up nearly 22 percent of all immigrants in the larger Orlando (78,100 out of 356,200) and Bridgeport, CT (39,100 out of 180,700) areas, and for 20 percent of the total immigrant population in the greater Miami area (426,700 out of 2.2 million).
Modes of Entry and Legal Status
Note: This section is based on the data from DHS, unless stated otherwise. DHS data refer to the US government's fiscal year, October 1 through September 30. Thus, "2011" refers to October 1, 2010 through September 30, 2011.
In 2011, more than 86,000 South American-born immigrants were granted US lawful permanent residency (LPR status, also known as getting a green card).
About 59 percent of all South American immigrants granted LPR status in 2011 qualified as the immediate family member (spouse, unmarried child under 21, or parent) of a US citizen, compared to 43 percent of all immigrants. In contrast, South Americans were much less likely to obtain green cards through the US diversity visa program compared to immigrants overall (1 percent versus 5 percent).
South American nationals accounted for a negligible share of refugee arrivals and 7 percent of persons granted asylum in 2011.
Close to 1,800 South American nationals received asylum in 2011, representing 7 percent of the total 24,988 persons granted asylum that year. From 2002 through 2011, South American nationals accounted for 15 percent (38,475) of the 260,951 total individuals granted asylum. Colombia was by far the leading country of origin for South American nationals granted asylum during this time with 27,181 (71 percent of all South American asylum grants), followed by Venezuela (8,722, or 23 percent) and Peru (1,223, or 3 percent).
More than 70,000 South American-born immigrants became US citizens through naturalization in 2011.
The share of South American-born immigrants who have naturalized (47 percent) is close to that of the overall foreign-born population (45 percent).
In 2011, 71 percent of immigrants born in Guyana were naturalized US citizens, making them the most likely of all South American immigrants to have naturalized. Immigrants from Paraguay (54 percent) and Argentina (51 percent) were also more likely to be US citizens than those from other South American countries. The naturalized as a share of the total population were comparatively lower for Brazil (32 percent), Venezuela (36 percent), and Ecuador and Uruguay (42 percent each).
Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview
Note: This section is based on the authors' analysis of 2011 ACS data.
South American immigrant women outnumbered men in 2011.
The gender imbalance among South American immigrants was more pronounced among those from certain countries. For example, the tilt toward women was more exaggerated for immigrants born in Paraguay (60 percent women) Colombia (58 percent), and Venezuela (56 percent), while only Ecuador (53 percent men) had a higher percentage of men.
The foreign born from South America were more likely than the native born, and nearly equally as likely as the foreign born overall, to be of working age.
The South American countries with the highest share of immigrants of working age were Brazil (90 percent), Venezuela (88 percent), and Ecuador (86 percent). South American countries with the highest shares of seniors were Argentina (18 percent), Chile (17 percent) and Paraguay (16 percent).
More than half of all South American immigrants have strong English-language skills.
Compared to immigrants overall, South American immigrants were less likely to be Limited English Proficient (LEP), meaning that they reported speaking English less than "very well." Only 46 percent of those born in South America were LEP versus 51 percent of all immigrants.
Rates of English proficiency varied by South American country of origin.
South American-born adults (ages 25 and older) were nearly equally as likely as US-born adults to have a bachelor's degree or higher level of education.
The South American born fell between these two other groups in terms of percentage who had not obtained at least a high school diploma or equivalent credential. In 2011, almost one-third (31 percent) of all immigrants had not obtained these credentials, compared to 17 percent of South American-born adults and 11 percent of native-born adults. The share of the South American born who reported their highest educational attainment as a high school diploma, some college, or an associate's degree (54 percent) was higher than that of the foreign born overall (41 percent), but lower than that of the native born (61 percent).
Levels of educational attainment, however, vary widely among South American origin countries. The top South American origin countries from which immigrant adults reported having a bachelor's degree or higher were Venezuela (49 percent), Argentina (39 percent), Brazil (38 percent), and Chile (38 percent). On the other hand, 16 percent of Ecuadoran immigrants reported having a bachelor's degrees or higher, and 32 percent lacked a high school diploma.
Two-thirds of South American-born immigrants arrived in the United States since 1990.
This arrival pattern generally mirrored that of immigrants in the United States overall: 36 percent had arrived since 2000; 27 percent arrived between 1990 and 1999; 18 percent entered between 1980 and 1989; and 19 percent entered prior to 1980.
Among the South American born, some origin groups were more established than others. For example, immigrants from Guyana (49 percent) and Chile (47 percent) were most likely to have arrived before 1990. Meanwhile, immigrants from Brazil (55 percent), Venezuela (52 percent), and Uruguay (49 percent) were the most likely to have to have arrived since 2000.
More than 23 percent of employed South American-born men worked in construction, extraction, and transportation, while 29 percent of South American women worked in service and personal care occupations.
Although these shares reflected those of male immigrants overall, South American men were slightly more likely to report working in management, business, and finance; sales; and administrative support (see Table 2).
Among the 730,000 employed South American–born women ages 16 to 64, 29 percent reported working in service and personal care occupations; 16 percent in administrative support; 11 percent in management, business, and finance; and 10 percent in sales.
These shares closely mirrored those of of female immigrants overall. However, they were somewhat more likely to report working in education, training, media and entertainment; service and personal care; and administrative support (see Table 2).
The South American born were less likely to live in poverty in 2011 than the foreign born overall.
There were moderate differences between origin countries. For example, immigrants from Argentina (11 percent), Chile (11 percent), and Uruguay (12 percent) were less likely than South American immigrants overall to live in poverty. In contrast, immigrants from three countries were slightly more likely than others to live below the poverty line: Ecuador (17 percent), Venezuela (16 percent), and Paraguay (16 percent).
About 1.1 million children under the age of 18 resided in a household with at least one immigrant parent born in South America.
Note: Includes children who reside with at least one parent who was born in South America.
US Census Bureau, 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), Table B05006, "Place of Birth for the Foreign-Born Population." Available online.
US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. 2011 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, various tables. Available online.
Authors' analysis of the US Census Bureau's 2011 ACS. Accessed from Steven Ruggles, J. Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2010. Available online.
2002-2013 Migration Policy Institute.
All rights reserved.