Houston’s Little-Known Secret

June 20, 2024

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Photo of Valerie Lacarte
Dr. Valerie Lacarte. Senior Policy Analyst, MPI

What comes to mind when you think of Houston? NASA? Unrelenting heat and humidity? A blue ocean in the middle of a red desert? These may be the first things you think of when you think of Houston, but did you know Houston is a frequent landing point for a highly diverse and vibrant immigrant community? What does Dr. Valerie Lacarte from Washington D.C. know about it? As it turns out, quite a bit.

If you didn’t have the pleasure of attending the presentation HILSC hosted this past Monday (June 10th), you certainly missed out. Dr. Lacarte from the Migration Policy Institute, based out of Washington, D.C., delighted HILSC and the other presentation attendees with her wealth of knowledge on this vibrant and underappreciated community. Ranging from a look at the composite of the different status types of immigrants in Houston, to the ‘brain waste’ Houston is experiencing due to a growing educated immigrant population who are struggling to find employment, or the link between the immigrant population and Houston’s economic health, the information shared that afternoon had the cogs in our brains turning. It was an informative and engaging presentation; as attendees furiously scribbled notes to try and capture the granular data presented, we left with a more comprehensive understanding of our treasured immigrant community, the challenges they face, and the contributions they make.

Take a look at this fascinating graphic below; what immediately pops out? One of our attendees spotted it right away.

From MPI Report. Source: These 2019 data derive from MPI analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data from the pooled 2015–19 ACS and the 2008 SIPP, weighted to 2019 unauthorized immigrant population estimates provided by Van Hook.

Looking at the yellow bars, one would think that the 44% of the Latino population that are ‘naturalized’ citizens would naturally correspond to the 68% legal permanent resident Latino population, instead of the 24% nonimmigrant visa holding Latino population. Why would there be such a disconnect? Interestingly, this discrepancy points to one of the challenges legal permanent residents face getting citizenship and suggests a potential breakdown in services. Several surveys, including MPI’s analysis of the data, indicate that language and/or financial barriers account for why the Latino population doesn’t have a larger share of ‘naturalized’ citizens in the Greater Houston Area. This led to a discussion about ‘strategic’ applications to become a citizen. According to USCIS,

You are exempt from the English language requirement, but are still required to take the civics test if you are:

  • Age 50 or olderat the time of filing for naturalization and have lived as a permanent resident (Green Card holder) in the United States for 20 years (commonly referred to as the “50/20” exception).
  • Age 55 or olderat the time of filing for naturalization and have lived as a permanent resident in the United States for 15 years (commonly referred to as the “55/15” exception).


  • Even if you qualify for the “50/20” or “55/15” English language exceptions listed above, you must still take the civics test.
  • You will be permitted to take the civics test in your native language.
  • If you take the test in your native language, you must bring an interpreter with you to your interview.
  • Your interpreter must be fluent in both English and your native language. 

USCIS CItizenship Exceptions and Accomodations

Furthermore, if you’re 65 years or older, special accommodations are made; i.e.you get to take a shorter civics test. However, in related news, the advocacy efforts of Texas Language Justice Collective, led by HILSC ally Woori Juntos, secured budget allocation towards the creation of a new Language Access Coordinator position with the city! This is one step forward in achieving language proficiency and justice in Houston. Way to go!

Another interesting discussion that arose during the presentation stemmed from the economic contributions Houston’s immigrant community makes to the betterment of our city. Check out Dr. Lacarte explaining:

About one third of Houston’s workforce is made up of the foreign-born population. This population made up a major portion of the workforce deemed ‘essential’ during the pandemic as well, including those in the caring industries, such as healthcare and elder care. Combine this with the fact that the number of adults age 65 and older grew three times faster than the total population (67 percent versus 23 percent); it is undeniable – the immigrant community is vital to Houston’s economic health.

This is just a snapshot of what was discussed during the presentation. To learn more, check out the report Immigration and Integration in the Ever More Diverse Houston Area!


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