A Profile of Immigrants in Houston, the Nation\’s Most Diverse Metropolitan Area

March 16, 2015

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One of the first acts of the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative was to commission a baseline report on Houston\’s immigrant population from the Migration Policy Institute. MPI is a non-partisan and trusted source of accurate data on immigration trends in the U.S. and internationally.

The report, \”A Profile of Immigrants in Houston, the Nation\’s Most Diverse Metropolitan Area,\” provides an overview of the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of Houston\’s immigrants, along with their naturalization rates, legal status, and potential eligibility for immigration benefits such as citizenship or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The report finds that Houston\’s strong labor market and growing economy provide a solid foundation for the integration of immigrants and their children. At the same time, Houston has a relatively low-wage economy, and the low incomes of Houston\’s immigrants—particularly Latinos—may present barriers to their integration and access to legal assistance, health care, and other needed services.

Using data from the American Community Survey (ACS), the authors tabulate numbers of immigrants potentially in need of community-based immigration assistance. The report finds that an estimated 350,000 legal permanent residents, most of them from Mexico and Central America, are eligible for naturalization but have not yet applied. In addition, nearly half of the metro area\’s 400,000 unauthorized immigrants are potentially eligible for either DACA or the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program.

Report Highlights 

The greater Houston area is home to the majority of Texas’ immigrant population. In 2013, immigrants comprised over one quarter (25.3%) of Harris County residents, and 22 percent of residents in the Houston/The Woodlands/Sugar Land Metropolitan Statistical Area.[1] Houston is one of six metropolitan areas nationally that experienced the most significant new immigrant growth between 2000 and 2010, and is one of the most diverse regions of the state.[2] Over 75 percent of the foreign-born in the 11-county Houston-Galveston region live in Harris County.[3] An estimated 67 percent of Harris County’s foreign-born and 64 percent of the foreign-born in the MSA are non-US citizens.[4]

The future impact of immigrants on the Houston metro area cannot be overstated. The immigrant population grew by almost 50 percent from 2000 to 2012, with populations from Guatemala and Honduras more than doubling during that period (see chart, below). It is important to note that the total foreign-born population grew by only 28% nationally during this same period.

Figure 1: Growth Rate, Foreign-Born Population by Top 10 Origins, Houston Metro Area, 2000-2012


Citizenship Status 

Approximately one-third of the foreign-born in the Houston metro region are naturalized US citizens, compared to 44 percent in the United States as a whole. Citizenship rates are much lower for immigrants from El Salvador (24%), Mexico (22%), Guatemala (17%), and Honduras (14%). U.S. citizenship provides substantive economic, social, and civic benefits to immigrants and their families. For example, the average income of adult citizen immigrants is 33 percent higher—and the poverty rate is nearly six percentage points lower—than that of non-citizens.[5]

The Migration Policy Institutes that only 56 percent of the legal permanent residents (LPRs) who are eligible to apply for citizenship are naturalized citizens, compared to 61 percent of LPRs nationwide. These are typically legal permanent residents married to U.S. citizens or who have sufficient U.S. residency. There are many more immigrants in the Houston area eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, but cost, educational gaps, lack of legal services, and confusion about programs for which they might qualify, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), may prevent them from seizing these opportunities.

Figure 2: Percent by Origin Country and Citizenship Status, 2008-2012


Overall, it is important to note that the populations of immigrants most in need of affordable legal services are those who are currently unauthorized (gray columns in Figure 2, above) and the non-immigrants (purple columns in Figure 2, above). In the Houston community, these immigrants are disproportionately from Mexico and Central America, though significant numbers of immigrants from the other top 10 origin countries also fall into these categories.

Download the full report here.


[1] U.S. Census Bureau, Selected Social Characteristics in the United States, 2013 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates.

[2] Michael Emerson, Jenifer Bratter, and Junia Howell, Houston Region Grows More Racially/Ethnically Diverse, With Small Declines in Segregation. (Houston, Texas, Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas, 2012).

[3] U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml

[4] U.S. Census Bureau, Selected Social Characteristics in the United States, 2013 American Community Survey 1-year Estimates.

[5] Shierholz, Heidi. “The Effects of Citizenship on Family Income and Poverty.” Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper #256. Washington, DC: Economic Policy Institute, 2010. Web. http://www.epi.org/publication/bp256/


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