Chinese Immigrants in the United States
The number of Chinese immigrants in the United States has grown each decade since 1960, when the population stood at just under 100,000, to reach 1.8 million in 2010. The Chinese born represented the second-largest immigrant group in the country (after the foreign born from Mexico) in 2010, and accounted for 4.5 percent of the total foreign-born population.
Compared to the foreign born overall, Chinese immigrants in 2010 reported higher levels of educational attainment, were less likely to live in households with an annual income below the poverty line, and were substantially more likely to have naturalized as US citizens. Yet, Chinese immigrants were also more likely to have limited English proficiency than the foreign born overall, and immigrant men born in China exhibited lower rates of labor force participation than immigrant men overall.
This Spotlight focuses on Chinese immigrants residing in the United States and examines the population's size, geographic distribution, admissions categories, legal status, and demographic and socioeconomic characteristics. The data used are the most recent detailed data available and come from the US Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey (ACS), the 2000 Decennial Census (as well as earlier censuses), and the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Immigration Statistics (OIS).
The ACS and OIS data used in this article refer to immigrants born in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Instances wherein the data refer only to immigrants from Mainland China or from Hong Kong are noted.
Size and Distribution
Modes of Entry and Legal Status
Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview
Size and Distribution
There were about 1.8 million foreign born from China (including Hong Kong) residing in the United States in 2010.
The Chinese-born population has both increased in numeric terms and made up a larger share of the foreign-born population each decade since 1960, when the population stood at just under 100,000 and represented only 1.0 percent of all immigrants. Relative to other groups, the Chinese immigrant population grew particularly rapidly during the 1990s, rising from the sixth largest group in 1990 to the third largest in 2000.
More than one in ten Chinese immigrants in 2010 was born in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China.
Over half of the Chinese born resided in two states: California and New York.
While the number of Chinese-born persons in South Dakota was small (just over 2,000), the share that they represented in the state’s total immigrant population was the highest in the nation (9.7 percent). The Chinese born accounted for 8.8 percent of all immigrants in New York, 8.7 percent in Hawaii, 7.8 percent in North Dakota, and 7.3 percent in Massachusetts.
More than one in five Chinese immigrants lived in the New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA metropolitan area in 2010.
Compared to other metro areas, San-Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA had the highest share of immigrants born in China in 2010.
There were about 4.3 million self-identified members of the Chinese diaspora residing in the United States in 2010.
Note:There is no universally recognized definition of the term "diaspora." Most often, the term includes individuals who self-identify as having ancestral ties to a specific country of origin. To calculate the size of the Chinese diaspora in the United States, we included all individuals born in Mainland China or Hong Kong (except those born to at least one US-citizen parent), all individuals who reported "Chinese" as their race or ethnicity regardless of where they were born, and all individuals who selected “Chinese” or "Cantonese" either alone or in combination with another option as a response to either of the two ACS questions on ancestry.
Modes of Entry and Legal Status
More than 700,000 immigrants born in Mainland China and Hong Kong were granted green cards between 2001 and 2010.
In 2010 alone, Chinese immigrants from Mainland China accounted for 6.8 percent (or 70,863) of the 1.0 million immigrants granted lawful permanent residence, with immigrants born in Hong Kong accounting for only 0.2 percent (2,432) of all grants.
Chinese immigrants were less likely than immigrants overall in 2010 to obtain lawful permanent residence through family-based channels.
About one-third (34 percent, or 24,929) of the Chinese born who received green cards did so as immediate relatives of US citizens, one-quarter (25.1 percent, or 18,413) did so through employment-based channels, 20.4 percent (14,950) as asylees or refugees, 20.2 percent (14,806) through family-sponsored preferences, and the remaining 0.2 percent through other means.
By comparison, among the 1.0 million immigrants overall who became lawful permanent residents (LPR) in 2010, 45.7 percent did so as immediate family members of US citizens, 20.6 percent through family-sponsored preferences, 14.2 percent as employment-based immigrants, and 13.1 percent as refugees and asylees. A small share were also admitted through the Diversity Visa Program (4.8 percent) and through other means (1.7 percent).
More than one in ten employment-based green cards went to Chinese immigrants in 2010.
Chinese nationals received more asylum grants than any other nationality in 2010.
A very small number of Chinese nationals (72) were admitted to the United States as refugees in 2010, accounting for a very small share (0.1 percent) of the year's total refugee admissions (73,293).
The People's Republic of China was the third most common birthplace for lawful permanent residents in 2010.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimated that about 40 percent of Chinese LPRs (220,000 persons) were eligible to naturalize as US citizens in 2010, representing 2.7 percent of all LPRs eligible for naturalization.
In 2010, roughly 1 percent of all unauthorized immigrants in the United States were from China.
Demographic and Socioeconomic Overview
The data used in this section come from the 2010 American Community Survey, accessed from Steven Ruggles, et al. Integrated Public Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis, MN: Minnesota Population Center [producer and distributor], 2010.
More than four in ten Chinese immigrants in the United States arrived in 2000 or later.
Among the Chinese born, immigrants from Mainland China were more likely to be recent arrivals than their Hong Kong-born peers. More than half (56.0 percent) of immigrants born in Hong Kong arrived in the United States before 1990, compared to 26.6 percent of those born in Mainland China. Similar shares of immigrants from Hong Kong and the mainland arrived during the 1990s – 26.9 percent and 29.6 percent, respectively – but 43.8 percent of immigrants from Mainland China arrived in 2000 or later, compared to only 17.1 percent of those from Hong Kong.
With respect to the US foreign-born population overall, 34.7 percent of the 40 million total entered the country in 2000 or later, with 27.1 percent entering between 1990 and 1999, 18.5 percent entering between 1980 and 1989, 10.5 percent between 1970 and 1979, and the remaining 9.1 percent prior to 1970.
The foreign born from China were more likely to be age 65 or older than both the native born and the foreign born overall.
Chinese immigrants were also slightly more likely to be age 15 and younger (youths) than the foreign born overall, with 6.8 percent of the former falling into this age range compared to 5.6 percent of the latter. Among the native born, a category that includes US-born children of immigrants, 23.5 percent were youths.
Among Chinese immigrants there was also some variation with respect to age, with the foreign born from Hong Kong overwhelmingly concentrated in the working age range (91.1 percent) compared to those born in Mainland China (76.2 percent). Immigrants from Mainland China were more likely to be youths (7.4 percent versus 1.9 percent) and seniors (16.4 percent versus 7.0 percent) than their Hong Kong-born peers.
Chinese immigrant women outnumbered men in 2010.
Chinese immigrants were significantly more likely than the foreign born overall to be naturalized US citizens.
Roughly three of five Chinese immigrants were limited English proficient in 2010.
Rates of English proficiency varied among Chinese immigrants, with immigrants born in Hong Kong reporting higher rates of proficiency than their mainland-born peers. Among the foreign born from Hong Kong, 12.7 percent reported speaking only English and 45.8 percent reported speaking English "very well," compared to 7.6 percent and 26.9 percent of Mainland Chinese immigrants. With respect to the foreign born overall, 15.2 percent reported speaking only English and 33.2 percent reported speaking English "very well."
Overall, 65.5 percent of immigrants born in Mainland China were LEP, compared to 41.6 percent of immigrants from Hong Kong.
Note:The term "limited English proficient" refers to any person age 5 and older who reported speaking English "not at all," "not well," or "well" on their survey questionnaire. Individuals who reported speaking only English or speaking English "very well" are considered proficient in English.
Almost all of the Chinese immigrants who were limited English proficient in 2010 reported speaking "Chinese," Cantonese, or Mandarin.
The majority of immigrants born in Mainland China and Hong Kong who were LEP reported speaking "Chinese" (66.5 and 51.9 percent, respectively).
Chinese-born adults were more likely than the native born to have a bachelor's degree or higher level of education.
Levels of educational attainment varied among Chinese-born populations. Immigrants born in Mainland China (25.6 percent) were about 10 percentage points more likely than those born in Hong Kong (15.0 percent) to have not obtained a high school degree or equivalent credential. They were also more likely (18.5 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively) to have attained a high school diploma or equivalent as their highest degree.
However, both groups were less likely than the foreign born overall to fall on the lower end of the spectrum of educational attainment. In 2010, 31.7 percent of all immigrants lacked a high school diploma and 22.5 percent reported that degree as their highest educational credential.
Chinese immigrant men were less likely to participate in the civilian labor force than foreign-born men overall.
Chinese-born women (57.3 percent) were about as likely to participate in the labor force as immigrant women overall (56.9 percent), but both groups were slightly less likely than native-born women to be part of the labor force (59.7 percent).
Among Chinese immigrants of both genders, those born in Hong Kong had higher labor force participation rates than those born in Mainland China. Roughly 71 percent of women born in Hong Kong participated in the labor force in 2010, compared to 55.5 percent of women born in Mainland China. Among men, 78.7 percent of the Hong Kong born participated in the labor force, compared to 68.2 percent of those born in Mainland China.
Almost one-quarter of employed Chinese-born men worked in information technology and other sciences and engineering occupations in 2010.
Chinese-born women were more likely than Chinese-born men and immigrant men and women overall to work in management, business, and finance professions in 2010.
Chinese-born women were most likely to report working in service occupations (19.6 percent) in 2010, but worked in these roles at significantly lower rates than foreign-born women overall (26.7 percent). A significant share of Chinese-born women also reported working in administrative support positions (11.6 percent).
Chinese immigrants were less likely to live in poverty in 2010 than the foreign born overall.
Note:Poverty is defined as individuals residing in families with a total annual income below the federal poverty line. Whether an individual falls below the official poverty line depends not only on total family income, but also on the size of the family, the number of children, and the age of the householder. ACS reports total income over the 12 months preceding the interview date.
About 479,000 children resided with at least one Chinese-born parent in 2010.
Like the overall population of children with immigrant parents, the majority of children in Chinese immigrant families were native born. This figure was comparable for children with Chinese parents (85.1 percent) and for children with immigrant parents overall (85.9 percent).
Note:Includes only children who reside with at least one foreign-born parent.
Hoefer, Michael, Nancy Rytina, and Bryan C. Baker. 2011. Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: January 2010. Washington, DC: US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. Available online.
Nancy Rytina. 2011. Estimates of the Legal Permanent Resident Population in 2010. Washington, DC: US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. Available online.
US Census Bureau. 2010 American Community Survey. Accessed from Ruggles, Steven, Trent Alexander, Katie Genadek, Ronald Goeken, Matthew B. Schroeder, and Matthew Sobek. 2010. Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 5.0 [Machine-readable database]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota. Available online.
US Department of Homeland Security, Office of Immigration Statistics. 2011. Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Various tables. Available online.Originally published on the Migration Information Source (www.migrationinformation.org), a project of the Migration Policy Institute.
Kristen McCabe is a Research Assistant at the Migration Policy Institute, where she works on the US Immigration Policy Program and the Labor Markets Initiative. Prior to joining MPI, she worked as a Legal Assistant at an immigration and nationality law firm in Boston, MA. Ms. McCabe holds a BA with honors from Tufts University, where she double majored in English and International Relations.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.