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Foreign immigration to the Bay Area on the rise for first time in five years

Maria Laura Limpias Chavez, left, of Bolivia, Sahara Loffsner, of Colombia, and fellow new American citizens, take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony on the flight deck of the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda in July 2021. | Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images
Maria Laura Limpias Chavez (left) of Bolivia, Sahara Loffsner of Colombia and fellow new American citizens take the Oath of Allegiance during a naturalization ceremony on the flight deck of the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda in July 2021. | Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Foreign immigration to the Bay Area is back on the rise after five years of decline, according to recently released data.

The Bay Area gained over 21,000 foreign immigrants from July 2021 to June 2022. That marked a dramatic reversal of the previous year’s trend, when nearly 600 more immigrants left the region than moved in. 

The figures were published by the California Department of Finance's Demographic Research Unit, which uses July 1 of each year as its benchmark. They represent the “net” immigration to the state, which is how many more people immigrated to the region than decamped to other countries. 

The data most closely tracks people who immigrate through the legal visa process. The Department of Finance figures also include a rough estimate of illegal immigration using figures from the decennial Census, but it does not capture precise year-to-year fluctuations in this type of migration.

During the first waves of the pandemic in 2020, the federal government put in place strict controls that limited immigration, and many U.S. embassies closed their doors for previously available visa applications, explained Phuong Nguyen, a demographic researcher with the Department of Finance who analyzed the data. Meanwhile, universities across the Bay Area, and the country as a whole, shuttered their dorms and transitioned to remote-only learning. That forced many international students to return home.

This combination of factors led to the region’s only negative net foreign immigration total in the past decade. The abrupt stop in immigration, combined with an explosive migration away from the Bay Area, was a significant factor that contributed to San Francisco’s first population decline in years.

But in 2022, the U.S. reopened the door. Embassies processed visas again, and in-person classes resumed for many international students, driving the increase in foreign immigration to the Bay Area, Nguyen said. The local immigration uptick mirrors the rest of the state, and the nation as a whole.

Even before Covid hit, net immigration to the Bay Area had been on a steady decline since its 2016 peak, the data shows. That’s due to a series of Trump administration policies that limited immigration to the U.S., Nguyen said.

California gained over 162,000 immigrants in 2016, but that figure dropped to about 123,000 in 2019.

Immigration is not distributed evenly across the Bay Area. Santa Clara County led the region, gaining about 6,000 immigrants between July 2021 and June 2022. That was 25 times as many as Napa County, which saw a bump of less than 250 people.

Santa Clara County is home to Silicon Valley and Stanford University, both of which draw people from around the world, driving its high immigration figures, Nguyen explained. UC Berkeley also brings vast numbers of international students to Alameda County, and San Francisco has long been an arrival hub for people coming from abroad to start a new life in the U.S. 

All three of 2022’s top Bay Area immigration destinations have some of the region’s highest rates of residents who were born abroad. More than one-third of residents in SF, San Mateo and Alameda counties are foreign-born and that number rises to 40% for Santa Clara County.

President Biden has reversed many of his predecessor’s immigration restrictions. So as the Department of Homeland Security clears its pandemic-era paperwork backup, California’s immigration totals will likely continue climbing back to their pre-Trump-administration levels, Nguyen predicts. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Border Patrol agents have been encountering record-high numbers of migrants attempting to cross into the states from Mexico, a further indication that immigration into California, and the rest of the nation, may continue to increase in the coming months and years.

The rising immigration totals may bode well for San Francisco boosters who want to see the city return to the population growth it enjoyed throughout the 2010s. Immigration has long been the engine driving the city’s population expansions.

Noah Baustin can be reached at