Los Angeles Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A major world city with a population of 3.8 million people in 2009, Los Angeles has the largest concentration of immigrants of any American city. An estimated 38 percent of its residents were born outside the United States, and they have come from more than 140 different countries, making Los Angeles one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.

Founded in 1781 as a Spanish port city, Los Angeles became a Mexican city after Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. After the United States defeated Mexico in the Mexican War of 1846-1848, Los Angeles became an American city, but was slow to grow as most of the new state of California’s growth was concentrated in the north.Los AngelesCalifornia;Los AngelesLos AngelesCalifornia;Los Angeles[cat]CITIES AND COMMUNITIES;Los Angeles[03290][cat]MEXICAN IMMIGRANTS;Los Angeles[03290]

The Railroads;and California[California]arrival of the first railroads was the first catalyst to attract significant numbers of people to Los Angeles. During the 1880’s, the Santa Fe Railroad made Los Angeles its western terminus, and city officials paid the Southern Pacific RailroadSouthern Pacific Railroad to extend a rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The railroads hired thousands of Chinese immigrants to work on rail lines. By 1880, one-quarter of all workers in California were Chinese men. Passenger fare wars between competing rail companies brought many new residents to the area, including European immigrants from the Midwest.

After a series of federal immigration laws began restricting immigration from Asia, the railroads recruited Mexicans to maintain rail lines in the Southwest and were consequently instrumental in drawing Los Angeles;Mexican immigrantsMexican immigrants to Los Angeles. During the early twentieth century, Los Angeles’s Mexican population virtually exploded, growing from 5,000 people in 1900 to more than 150,000 in 1930. However, nearly one-third of these Great Depression;and Mexican immigrants[Mexican immigrants]Mexican immigrants were deported from the region during the early years of the Great Depression by U.S. Labor Department officials. Mexicans began returning to the region during the 1940’s, after the United States inaugurated a new bracero program to bring Mexican workers into the United States to help during the wartime labor shortage.

As Los Angeles became industrialized during the 1930’s, its automobile, airplane, and other industries attracted numerous different immigrant groups. The rapidly expanding factories gave jobs to thousands of non-English-speaking immigrants and were influential in expanding the city’s borders.

Late Twentieth Century Trends

The city’s immigration patterns underwent a major shift after 1960, as the numbers of European immigrants began to decline and non-European immigration began rising rapidly. In 1965, the U.S. Congress passed the [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965;and quotas[quotas]Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the country-based quota system formerly in place. The new law benefited many nationalities–most notably Asians–who had previously been unable to come to the United States because of the quotas. Before the passage of the 1965 law, Asians accounted for only 7 percent of all immigrants arriving in the United States. By the 1980’s, about 44 percent of all immigrants were coming from Asian countries. Many of these new immigrants settled in Los Angeles, which experienced a four-fold growth in Asian population between 1970 and 1990. Immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos arrived in greater numbers after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. They were followed by an influx of Filipinos during the 1980’s. By the early twenty-first century, Los Angeles was second only to New York City in the size of its Asian population.

The years following 1970, also saw a large rise in immigration from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and Hispanics became the single largest category of foreign immigrants to Los Angeles. Due in part to the city’s nearness to the Mexican border, the Greater Los Angeles region became home to nearly 2 million Mexican immigrants–the single largest concentration of Mexican nationals within the United States.

As Mexicans continued to immigrate in large numbers to Los Angeles and other parts of California, they faced increasing scrutiny from anti-immigration activists. In March, 2006, Los Angeles was the site of the largest immigration rally in the country, as similar rallies took place across the country to protest proposed federal legislation designed to increase penalties for undocumented immigrants.Los AngelesCalifornia;Los Angeles

Further Reading
  • Abu-Lughod, Janet L. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: America’s Global Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  • Ochoa, Enrique C., and Gilda L. Ochoa, eds. Latino Los Angeles: Transformations, Communities, and Activism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005.
  • Rieff, David. Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
  • Sawhney, Deepak Narang, ed. Unmasking L.A.: Third Worlds and the City. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
  • Waldinger, Roger, and Mehdi Bozorgmehr, eds. Ethnic Los Angeles. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1996.

Asian immigrants

Born in East L.A.


Captive Thai workers

Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles

El Rescate

Little Tokyos

Mexican immigrants

Proposition 187

Categories: History