As jobs vanished, immigrants left California. The question is how many

Day laborers from the CARECEN Day Labor Center and the IDEPSCA Labor Center pick out shovels and other tools
Day laborers from the CARECEN Day Labor Center and the IDEPSCA Labor Center pick out shovels and other tools to work on the garden at Evelyn Thurman Gratts Elementary School in Los Angeles in 2015.
(Stuart Palley / For The Times)

The elderly couple could no longer hold on, so they picked up and left Los Angeles in July — returning to Mexico, a country they had not visited for years.

The husband, Dante, did landscaping and gardening, but work had dried up since the start of the pandemic. Typically, he earned about $120 a week, while his wife, beset with health problems, had been too ill to hold a job.

“His truck was packed up. He literally stopped by my house before he left. He said, ‘Maybe if things get better I will come back,’” recalled Maegan Ortiz, executive director of IDEPSCA, an L.A.-based nonprofit that assists low-income Latino workers, including running area job centers.


The decision by the Boyle Heights couple to return to Mexico is a testament to how severely the coronavirus has upended the economy, and in particular the lives of immigrants, who often work in low-paying jobs, have little savings and might not be eligible for all the assistance doled out to citizens, even if they have documentation.

Not only have immigrants disproportionately contracted COVID-19, but industries that rely on their labor — including restaurants and hotels — have also been among the slowest to rebound from the virus shutdowns.

That dynamic might be contributing to a trend of reverse or outmigration, in which immigrants return to their home countries or go to other U.S. states, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center that was provided to The Times before its release Friday.

California’s immigrant population of 10.3 million in 2019 fell by about 642,000, or 6.2%, during the first five months of the pandemic, the analysis found. That figure eclipses both the number of residents in Sacramento and the combined decrease in the nation’s other states, which saw immigrant populations decline by 531,000, or 1.5%, during the same March-through-July period.

The center analyzed data collected by the Census Bureau’s monthly population survey of 60,000 U.S. households. It’s possible the decline might be partially explained by the difficulty in connecting with immigrants amid the disruption caused by the pandemic. And some demographers say they would like to see if the numbers hold up in the larger American Community Survey, which surveys millions of people but lags. The Census Bureau releases the data each fall, but they’re from the prior calendar year.

Edward Flores, a UC Merced sociology professor who conducted the analysis, said that while the Current Population Survey monthly data must be looked at with “caution,” it’s important to understand today, not just a year from now, how immigrant communities are being affected by the coronavirus — and what can be done to help them.


“Even without the pandemic, there was already a trend where there were a lot of migrants leaving California for other states,” said Flores, who thinks the survey highlights the need for more financial assistance, especially to immigrants in the U.S. illegally. “This is the greatest economic disaster since the Great Depression. As a state, California is going to be better positioned if its workforce is growing as opposed to shrinking.”

The analysis also found the total U.S. immigrant population declined 2.6%, exceeding the 1.6% decrease experienced in 2009 amid the height of the Great Recession. It’s the largest annual percentage decline of the country’s immigrant population in at least 20 years. The figures include naturalized citizens and noncitizens, including those here both legally and illegally, though the Census Bureau does not collect data on legal status.

The United States is not the only country that is seeing a decline in its immigrant population. The pandemic closed borders worldwide and stopped the flow of migrants seeking seasonal work, while also causing reverse migration, a United Nations Refugee Agency official said in May. The Trump administration took the same course and shut down U.S. borders in March, though the policy allows legal citizens and residents of both Mexico and the U.S. to return home.

Researchers at the Community and Labor Center first detected the population decline in an earlier analysis of joblessness among immigrants from February to April. A report in June noted the persistent high joblessness in California and nationwide among immigrants due to their employment in industries such as entertainment, food services, retail and construction. Although the latest data extend only through July, the conditions that resulted in the outflow of immigrants have improved slowly at best.

Los Angeles County shopping centers opened to limited capacity this month, but indoor dining is still prohibited and theme parks remain closed. National jobless claims unexpectedly surged in August, and the UCLA Anderson quarterly forecast predicts California payrolls will fall 7.2% this year, with the state’s economy not fully recovering for more than two years.


Meanwhile, there has been negligible aid for residents living without documentation.

Early on in the pandemic, Gov. Gavin Newsom created a $125-million fund for California workers without legal status, partially funded by private charities. The assistance provided a one-time cash grant of $500 per person or up to $1,000 per household but was rapidly depleted after the program opened in May. Last month, however, Newsom vetoed a bill that would have provided low-income immigrants, including those here illegally, $600 in grocery money, citing its impact on the state budget.

Immigrant advocates in California say that, while they have not noticed a mass exodus from the state, some immigrants did look for jobs in other states or return to their home countries. There were early reports in the Mexican press about an expected return of migrants.

Ortiz said that work had come practically to a full stop this summer for the day laborers and domestic workers who look for employment through her group’s job centers. She said she knew of desperate workers moving between Southern and Northern California, as well as adjacent states like Arizona. But recently work has begun to pick up and workers are arriving daily looking for jobs, though it’s still not at pre-pandemic levels.

“It is coming back very slowly, but it is coming back,” she said.

The group’s Hollywood day labor center typically placed five to eight workers a week in domestic jobs in the nearby Hollywood Hills and other wealthy communities. It placed a single worker in the early months of the pandemic when families were afraid to let any stranger in their home, she said. Now it is placing about three or four a week. The Cypress Park jobs center used to place about 20 day laborers daily before jobs virtually disappeared, but they are now at five or six a day.

The situation may be tougher in the Bay Area, which has some of the highest housing prices in the nation.

Laura Valdez, executive director of Dolores Street Community Services, which provides assistance to residents of San Francisco’s Mission District, said the pandemic devastated the community. Many without documentation live in packed quarters in single room-occupancy residences, where COVID-19 spread rapidly. She knows of a man who was kicked out of a single room he shared with seven other men after contracting the virus.

“We are hearing of a lot of self-evictions that are happening. Their immigration status does not allow them to receive unemployment insurance,” Valdez said.


She has heard that some have returned to their home countries, while others have gone to other cities in California and perhaps other states where they have relatives. “Many of them, sadly, are living out of their cars, unsheltered,” she said.

Anecdotal evidence suggests the pandemic has disrupted the housing situation of all Americans, with reports of cities losing residents and housing prices rising in suddenly desirable suburban neighborhoods. A study of U.S. Postal Service change-of-address forms released this week found temporary moves were up 27% between February and July compared with the same period last year.

Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., said the UC Merced analysis was noteworthy. But she added that the relatively small size of the Current Population Survey gave her pause, especially amid a pandemic when trying to survey immigrants, who typically have lower response rates, or immigrants in the country illegally, who are even harder to survey.

California has far more immigrants and far more without legal status — 2.2 million in 2016 — than any other state, according to Pew Research Center estimates. However, many states have a higher share of people who are here illegally as a percentage of their immigrant population, the study found. California is also home to about 4 million Mexican immigrants, a number that dwarfs those in other states, with many making cross-border trips and maintaining close ties to family in their home country.

Gelatt noted that even before the pandemic there was a trend of Mexican immigrants returning to their birth country due to its improved economy and improved security situation in some areas. She added that the national decline might be at least partially explained by COVID-related border closures, an already slowing influx of foreign students due to Trump administration policies and a cutback in the number of refugees admitted by the president.

“[The analysis] raises a lot of questions. I don’t know if it fully answers them, but it’s worth discussing them,” said Gelatt, who is eager to see if the trend holds up in the American Community Survey. “It’s completely possible that the foreign population is down. I am going to be very curious to see whether this was just a quirk in the data or whether this is a real change.”


The departures of immigrants amid the pandemic are consistent with a trend that has seen California, with its higher taxes and housing costs, lose population to other states. That loss has been relatively small as the state continues to draw wealthier immigrants and residents from other parts of the country. Still, the most recent 2018 American Community Survey found the exodus accelerating and fewer people migrating here from other states, with California experiencing a net loss of about 190,000 residents.

Jeffrey Passel, senior demographer at the Pew Research Center, declined to comment on the UC Merced analysis but said it’s possible that the current political atmosphere may have made it trickier to get responses in immigrant communities, especially among those without documentation. He noted the Trump administration’s effort to put a citizenship question on the decennial census has caused publicity that may have scared off some respondents.

The Trump administration also has sought to halt the 2020 census count despite concerns the pandemic has lowered the response rate; on Thursday the Supreme Court ruled in its favor.

“There’s an overall distrust. Let’s put it that way,” he said, noting Pew has decided not to conduct population studies on immigrants using the monthly data over concerns that a decreased sample size and response rate amid the pandemic might skew the results.

Flores said he doubted that the politicization of the census affected the decline, noting that the Trump administration took office with an agenda to reduce immigration and the proposal for the citizenship question predated the pandemic. He also pointed out that his research pooled five months of data for each year to conduct the comparison, which substantially increased the data set.

“The data is never perfect and that is an understanding that everyone who goes into this field has an understanding of,” said Flores, who plans to continue to track the population.


Demographer Dowell Myers, a professor at USC, said pandemic-related population losses are worrisome. He noted job losses during the recession led to a labor shortage in construction that still plagues the industry and that population movement by low-income workers can often be permanent.

“Low-income people who are really barely making it, they can’t afford to leave, so they stay close to home because that is where their support network is. But if they are forced out and they have to find a new support network, well then they are not coming back,” he said. “There is reason to worry. When workers go away they just don’t elastically bounce back.”

Not everyone has such a dire assessment. Michael Reich, a labor economist at UC Berkeley, said that while the loss of immigrant workers could cause temporary labor shortages in specific industries, it’s not a threat to the economy as a whole, given the high rate of unemployment.

“A full economic recovery depends foremost on fully addressing the pandemic, and then on providing relief to workers and businesses who have been most hard-hit. Reverse migration would then be itself reversed,” he said in an email.

Jacqueline Martin would not show up in any reverse migration statistic, since she was born in the United States. But she grew up in Mexico until she was 10 and her situation exemplifies the cross-border movement spurred by the pandemic — while raising questions about how permanent it might be.


She and her daughter stuck it out for months in their one-room, South Los Angeles residence after Martin was furloughed from her barista job at the Le Meridien Delfina Santa Monica. Finally, she decided she would visit her mother in Guadalajara.

After spending nearly two months in Mexico visiting family, she recently returned, though she remains on furlough. Under Santa Monica’s right-of-recall law, she expects to eventually be offered her job back.

“I love what I do,” said Martin, 53. “I want everything to go back to normal.”