Maikel Vidal knew exactly when it was time to leave. Living in Cuba had become increasingly difficult, from the tumultuous political climate to affording common life expenses, like fixing his car.
“It was unlivable,” he said in Spanish.
After leaving in 2021, he now lives in Katy with his wife, two children, his mother-in-law and father-in-law. They settled in the area because his brother-in-law lived in Katy.
When Texas politicians speak about local immigrant populations, they often mean immigrants from Mexico. But according to a report released Tuesday from the Migration Policy Institute, immigration is surging from other countries, making the Houston region far more diverse than many people might realize.
Here are key takeaways from the report:
Immigration has skyrocketed from countries beyond Mexico
Researchers analyzed Census data in the Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land metropolitan area to compare immigrant populations from 2006 to 2010, and 2017 to 2021. They found immigrants from Mexico still account for the largest share of the area’s foreign-born population, at 37 percent.
But that percentage has barely budged while immigration soared from other counties, including Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq, and Vidal’s home country of Cuba.
The Venezuelan immigrant population increased 464 percent, from 10,000 to 54,000; Cubans increased 259 percent, from 10,000 to 24,000; and Nigerians increased 251 percent, from 18,000 to 45,000, according to the report. The Iraqi population also saw a 938 percent increase during that same time period, though that population has grown from a base population of 1,000 people.
Overall, the percentage of immigrants to Houston who weren’t from Mexico grew from 54 percent to 63 percent during that period.
Valerie Lacarte, lead author of the study, said these population spikes are part of a broader story of Houston feeling the spillover effects from the border without being a border town. But that doesn’t explain the entire story to Lacarte.
“How is it that all of these populations, in so many different circumstances, keep gravitating toward Houston, especially given that Houston is in Texas, which is not necessarily known as the most immigrant-friendly state?” Lacarte said. “Some of these groups are not the ones we typically think about in Houston, so it’s interesting that it came out in the data.”
Nearly half the children in Houston live with at least one immigrant parent
In 2019, 48 percent of 1,822,000 children under 18 years of age lived with at least one immigrant parent, according to the report. Of that group, 310,000 children live with one more parent who is an immigrant in the country illegally.
That picture, Lacarte said, shows a high level of integration of foreign-born residents in Houston and could impact the way the U.S. views its immigration policy.
“It has policy implications in terms of when we are making policies targeting immigrants, we have to think that we’re actually looking at American families,” Lacarte said, adding that the implications of the data could show how important immigrants are becoming to American society.
“These statistics give us a good picture of the family structure, but it could be also seen as an indicator to what extent the presence of immigrants reaches different spheres of society, really,” Lacarte said.
Afghan refugees moved to Houston in droves, more than any other city in the U.S.
Houston has been a destination for more than just traditional immigration, with increased numbers of asylees, refugees, and other humanitarian protection seekers. The city was the top destination for Afghan refugees in the United States, while Harris County claimed the highest population of unaccompanied children of any county in the country.
The influx of Afghani refugees was supplemented by those who came to Houston with a Special Immigrant Visa, a program that has been in effect since 2006 and is currently extended through the end of 2024. Of the 1,658 SIV holders who settled in Texas, 95 percent were Afghani and 569 ended up in Houston.
The state had more than 97,000 pending asylum cases in the immigration court backlog as of this August, with 40,000 being caught up in Houston immigration courts.
Over 2,000 refugees ended up in Texas, with a majority coming from Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Myanmar, and Afghanistan. State resettlement officials reported that 684 of those refugees made their way to Houston.
Houston’s diversity extends beyond ethnicity to legal status
Until recently, Vidal said he had been without work since he arrived in the U.S. He received his work visa in August and immediately applied for his driver’s license so he could start working at a solar panel plant.
“I would work in places where they would take me without papers,” Vidal said. “It’s really hard to work without papers.”
In 2019, most immigrants in the Houston area held some type of legal status, the report found. Nearly seven out of 10 immigrants were either naturalized citizens or noncitizens with legal papers such as green cards. Thirty-one percent of foreign-born Houstonians came to the U.S. illegally, including those under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“It’s very interesting from the perspective of the administrative, the government authorities, the local authorities. How do they view the immigrant population?” Lacarte said. “It really is not just diverse in terms of country of origin, but especially in terms of all these legal statuses. What can you put in place to really address the needs of those who need it but at the same time be able to ensure that everyone gets a chance to contribute to the region?”
Almost 70,000 immigrants find themselves underemployed relative to their education and background
While immigrant populations make up a significant portion of hospitality and construction labor forces in Houston, that’s accompanied by 67,000 immigrants who have been unable to find employment that matches their education.
It’s a phenomenon known as “brain waste,” where immigrants with qualifications for specialized fields find themselves either unemployed or working a job that requires no more than a high school education with minimal on-the-job training.
“First, we have to acknowledge that the problem of brain waste or underemployment is not just for foreign-born (individuals),” Lacarte said.
She said that underemployment is a larger issue in general with the job market.
Still, Lacarte points to groups such as African immigrants who find themselves severely affected by underemployment for reasons specific to immigration. For example, 63 percent of underemployed immigrants obtained their degrees abroad, degrees that may not be recognized by employers in the United States.
“From what we understand, a lot of this is due to credentialing issues,” Lacarte said.
Immigrants face barriers to naturalization
Two-fifths of eligible-to-naturalize Houstonians had lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Another fifth of this group had lived in the U.S. for at least half a century.
“After a certain time, I can imagine it becomes kind of like, you haven’t been able to do it, you’re able to get by in the meantime, so you’ll stay there,” Lacarte said.
As of 2019, 62 percent of immigrants had limited English proficiency, and 152,000 immigrants eligible to naturalize had low income, according to the report. The citizenship application cost and biometrics adds up to $725, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“Most likely, we’re looking at an older generation of immigrant and older age group, and it doesn’t mean because you’ve been in the country longer that necessarily your English skills are better,” Lacarte said.
Houston leaders have implemented a new initiative called “Naturalize Now, Houston!” that aims to help at least 300,000 qualifying local residents become naturalized citizens over the next three years.
“It takes time to convince people that it’s safe,” she said.
The Houston Endowment, which is a financial supporter of the Houston Landing. provided support for the Migration Policy Institute report. The Endowment had no influence on decisions related to the reporting and publishing of this article. The Landing’s ethics policy and list of financial supporters are available online.