How We’re Using Data on Houston’s Growing Diversity to Drive Naturalization Strategies

A new report from grantee Migration Policy Institute shows Houston leads the nation in diversity and is helping our region better understand, and serve, Houston’s immigrant communities.

With support from Houston Endowment, the Migration Policy Institute recently published “Immigration and Integration in the Ever More Diverse Houston Area,” a robust report about immigrant communities in the nine-county Greater Houston area. Here, our civic engagement program team members Meghna Goswami and Gislaine Williams explain the report’s importance to their work and why it matters for the community at large.

Gislaine Williams and Meghna Goswami

Why did Houston Endowment invest in the MPI report?

Meghna Goswami (MG): It is critical that we have access to credible high-quality data to inform our work at Houston Endowment. Given that Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the nation, with a significantly large and growing immigrant population, it has been important for us to have current data that helps us better understand Houston’s immigrant community, support data-informed programming and interventions, and measure the impact of our work. We first commissioned this report on Houston’s Immigrant Community in 2015, and in 2018 MPI published a follow-up report.

This is the third time MPI has provided this in-depth research, and each time we have gained important insights on the makeup of Houston’s immigrant population and trends in immigration. It shows how Houston leads the nation in terms of diversity. This is where one in four residents are foreign born, and nearly 50 percent of children have at least one immigrant parent. The report highlights the contributions of immigrants to Houston’s economy, as well as the challenges that immigrants face. We believe that this report is a valuable resource for any entity that engages with immigrant communities in our region.

How does it help inform Houston Endowment’s work?

Gislaine Williams (GW): Right now, one of our key priorities is helping lawful permanent residents (LPRs) in Greater Houston to become citizens. We want Houston to be the citizenship capital of the U.S. To achieve that goal, we need strategies grounded in evidence and data to address the challenges faced by the immigrant population.

When we began this work, we needed to know how many residents were eligible to naturalize and how many years they’ve been eligible. The report helped us learn the answers. MPI estimates about 360,000 adults in the metro area meet eligibility criteria and found that 80 percent of those eligible to naturalize have lived in the United States for more 10 years. We also know that less than 10 percent complete the naturalization process each year.

That means a significant number of community members are missing out on the full rights and benefits of citizenship, including higher incomes, higher rates of home ownership, freedom of travel, and the ability to vote.

It also pointed out challenges that residents face when trying to obtain citizenship. According to MPI, 43 percent of immigrants in the metro area have family incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That makes it incredibly hard for a family to save for the required $725 application fee when they are struggling to make rent or put food on the table. Add to that the cost of legal support to help with the complex application process, as well as citizenship test prep services, and the burden becomes greater. Because of this data, we recognized the increasing importance of amplifying the work of on-the-ground agencies and bringing in new partners to address the challenges associated with the naturalization process.

Why is data, and more specifically data from MPI, important?

MG: Good data can help us as a community improve the work we are doing. MPI, nationally, is the leading authority on data related to immigration in the United States. The report ensures we have thorough data about the immigrant communities that we are trying to serve. This is the third time the report has been published, so we’ve been able to assess trends, patterns, and changes over time. This not only helps us to fine-tune strategies as our community changes, but it helps other nonprofit organizations in this space tailor their services to the most pressing needs in the community.

Data reaffirms how big of an impact we can make if all those who are eligible to naturalize become citizens. The number of immigrants who have called Houston home for 15-plus years is huge. We know that becoming a citizen provides them benefits and impacts the community at large. Research from the Urban Institute shows if 60 percent of the eligible-to-naturalize population in Houston took the step to naturalize, there would be an increase in tax revenues by around $93 million – and that was in 2012 when the eligible-to-naturalize population was much smaller than it is today. 

GW: We’ve also expanded the use of data with our naturalization work by commissioning January Advisors to create the Greater Houston Citizenship Dashboard — a new interactive website that provides data and insights about Greater Houston’s eligible-to-naturalize population and the challenges they face gaining U.S. citizenship. The site makes it easier for service providers and community stakeholders to understand where needs are greatest in the region. In addition, the site maps immigration service providers, allowing legal permanent residents better access to citizenship resources.

What other key information did you take away from the report?

MG: The report touches on how immigrants contribute to our local economy, and it’s significant. Around a third of the labor force in Houston is foreign-born — 42 percent of all doctors and 36 percent of engineers are foreign born, and more than half of our construction workers are foreign-born.

It also shows that although immigrants play a crucial role in these sectors, about one-fifth of college-educated immigrants are underemployed, meaning they work in jobs that require no more than a high school education or are unemployed — the name for it is “brain waste.” This affects about 67,000 immigrants with a college degree, 7,000 of whom have a degree in education or in the health or medical fields — two sectors with ongoing labor shortages.

GW: MPI also provides a look at how increasingly diverse Houston is. Thirty seven percent of immigrants in Houston are from Mexico, while the other 63 percent are from a variety of countries including Vietnam, India, Nigeria, Venezuela, China, and Colombia.

This data allows us to see the nine-county area of Greater Houston, but also indicates nuances of immigrant population growth in different regions. For example, there are 276,000 eligible-to-naturalize residents in Harris County, but there’s a growing population in Fort Bend County with 44,000 residents also eligible. It helps us to fine tune our strategies to best serve the community.

Why does the MPI Report matter to Houston or to other organizations in the region?

MG: It’s often said that “as goes Houston, so goes the nation.” We are at the forefront of demographic shifts, and what happens here matters.

The MPI report will help our community better understand the strengths and challenges of Greater Houston’s growing immigrant communities. This population has made important impacts on every sector of our region, and by staying informed with good data, we can strengthen our ability to serve the immigrant community and, in turn, the community as a whole.