Our Local Immigrant Communities:

Unappreciated Diversity

Santa Barbara's local immigrant communities are  the result of different waves of migration from a variety of countries and cultures. However, the great majority of low-income immigrants we serve are from Latin America, and most are employed in low-income agricultural and serve jobs which are vital to the county's economy. The wave of immigration from Mexico that began in the early 1980s arose from severe economic problems in Mexico coupled with American demand for low-income farm workers. The led to bipartisan support for legislation legalizing undocumented immigrant workers, signed into law by Ronald Reagan in 1986. A large proportion of Santa Barbara immigrant population is from this population, and most have either become citizens or are long-terms green card holders. Many immigrants from this group have become openly hostile to later immigrants, although others live in extended families that have undocumented immigrant members.

A second wave of Latin American immigrants arrived during the late 1980s from Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, as refugees from the civil wars and repression of leftist and reformist movements in these countries. Many, but not all received Temporary Protected Status or protection under specific legislation. The largest wave of immigration, however, was again from Mexico, and occurred in the fifteen-year period following the start of NAFTA in 1994. NAFTA severely damaged the Mexican rural economic as large quantities of U.S. corn and other agricultural products produced on highly efficient mechanized American farms flowed into Mexico. The wave of immigration is responsible for the majority of undocumented immigrants living in Santa Barbara County.

Our immigrant communities are highly mixed, with generational, religious, and national and regional differences making stereotypes of political and even cultural unity a myth. Other major divisions reflect racial, ethnic, educational and occupational divisions that mirror class and caste structures in Latin America. Although many non-immigrants fail to recognize the diversity of the Latin Amerian immigrant population, there is also a failure to recognize that a majority of immigrants have family members, friends, and co-workers who are undocumented, and thus, despite cultural religious, and political difference, generally agree on the need for thoroughgoing immigration reform. Another powerful force for reform are the many second generation immigrants born in this country, as well as many of their older siblings who were brought to the United States as young children (and many of whom have DACA protection).

The one group that stands sharply apart from the highly diverse majority of the immigrant population consists of the large number of indigenous Oaxacan farm workers in the North County, many of whom were brought up in households where Mixteco, or one of the other indigenous languages were spoken, and where Spanish is definitely a second language.

IMPORTA recognizes that its effectiveness depends on working with all elements of our extremely heterogenous immigrant population, tailoring our educational outreach work to specific audiences and working to make members of all religious, ethnic, and occupational groups feel welcome and understood.  

 Estimates of Local Immigrant Population Based on Data 

from the Census and the California Public Policy Institute  

  • Foreign-Born (Immigrants): 102,248 (22.9% of County Total)

  • Naturalized Citizens: 49,079 (48% of Immigrant Population)

  • Green Card Holders: 30,674 (30% of Immigrant Population)

  • Undocumented: 22,405 (22% of Immigrant Population)

  • DACA Recipients: 2,114 (9.4% of Undocumented Immigrants)