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Urban counties like Salt Lake and Utah are a draw for international migrants

A "Welcome to Utah" sign on Interstate 15 on the Utah/Idaho border, April 19, 2010.
Utah Dept. of Transportation
Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A "Welcome to Utah" sign on Interstate 15 on the Utah/Idaho border, April 19, 2010.

International migrants were attracted to some of the largest urban counties in the U.S. last year, an influx that helped some of those areas recover from the loss of local residents and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.

More than 1.1 million people moved to the U.S. last year, driving population gains at a time when immigration has become a hot-button election issue during the race for the White House and Congress. Newcomers from abroad accounted for more than two-thirds of U.S. population growth last year, according to the bureau's population estimates.

Population estimates published last month show which counties attracted international migrants last year but don't distinguish between those in the country legally or illegally. More than half of the foreign-born population in the U.S. live in just four states: California, Texas, Florida and New York. But the numbers alone only tell part of the story.


An influx of more than 40,300 people to California’s Los Angeles County — the third-largest international migration in the U.S. in 2023 — helped to mitigate the departure of 119,000 local residents from the nation's most populous county, Census Bureau figures show.

Large numbers of international migrants also flocked to the counties that are home to San Diego, Anaheim, San Jose and Oakland, again as local residents headed for the exits because of housing costs, a rising jobless rate or other reasons.

Similar inflows of international migrants and outflows of local residents took place in the counties that include the New York City boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

The largest numbers of international migrants to California came from Mexico, China and India, respectively, according to microdata from the 2022 American Community Survey.

Utah and Idaho

Among counties with more than a half-million residents, Ada County, Idaho, which is home to Boise, and two Utah counties that are home to the city of Provo and Salt Lake City, respectively, had among the greatest growth rates of international migration in 2023.

Utah and Idaho both have been among the fastest-growing states in the nation during the past decade. Meanwhile, Provo, Salt Lake City and Boise have become regional tech hubs, siphoning off white-collar workers and companies from more expensive tech centers in San Francisco and Seattle.

Yet the rise in international migration here may have another explanation.

Mallory Bateman, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, partly attributes the rise in both states to the return of Latter-day Saints missionaries from abroad. They are counted as international migrants even if they’re U.S. citizens.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the missionaries were called back stateside and didn’t get sent back out to their international posts until 2021. Last year would have marked the end of two-year missionary stints for many of them.

“It’s one of those special Utah characteristics that’s not really shared anywhere else,” Bateman said.

In Idaho, the increase also could be partially attributed to the return of military personnel and other U.S. residents who were stuck abroad because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, said Jaap Vos, a University of Idaho professor of planning and natural resources.


Just as international migration soared in other states, it dropped precipitously in Nevada. Clark County, home to the tourist-magnet city of Las Vegas, saw a decrease of 58%, the biggest among counties where a half-million or more people live, Census Bureau figures show.

The drop from more than 8,800 international migrants in 2022 to under 3,700 people in 2023 may have been driven largely by economics; Nevada had the highest unemployment rate — 5.1% — of any state last year. Other urban Western counties, including those that are home to Seattle and Portland, Oregon, had smaller increases in international migration than in 2022.

“It fluctuates every year, which doesn’t surprise me,” said Stephen Miller, director of research at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Center for Business and Economic Research.

Nevada’s biggest source of international migrants came from Mexico, the Philippines and China, respectively, according to microdata from the 2022 American Community Survey.

This story was written by Mike Schneider of the Associated Press.

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