Long a sleepy backwater nestled on Galveston Bay, by the turn of the 21st century Houston had grown to more than 1.9 million (more than 4 million in the metropolitan area), making it the fourth largest city in the United States and the second busiest port. As late as 1960, the foreign-born population was only 3 percent, but passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965) and geographic proximity to Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America led to a rapid influx of Asian and Hispanic immigrants. By 2000, there were 516,105 foreign-born immigrants (26.4 percent of the population), with the largest groups coming from Mexico, Central America, China, and Vietnam. Nearly half (49.5 percent) entered during the 1990s. By 2002, Anglos made up less than 40 percent of the city’s population.
Founded in 1836, Houston had a small foreign-born population until the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Political turmoil in Mexico and economic opportunity in Houston combined to lure thousands of Mexicans, who created barrios that remained distinctly Mexican. The Great Depression of the 1930s led many Mexicans to leave, and immigration remained stagnant until the mid-1960s. After the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965, cold war conflicts in Central America and Southeast Asia, coupled with a remarkable run of economic prosperity during the 1970s and 1980s, led to a new era of immigrant growth in Houston. Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians quickly found work, especially in construction and service industries. The Hispanic population more than doubled between 1980 and 1990 (212,444 to 424,903), as did the Vietnamese population (14,000 to 33,000). With the decline of the oil industry after 1982, it is estimated that 100,000 Anglos deserted the city, opening housing and business opportunities for newly arriving immigrants. During the 1990s, Houston refashioned its economy to become less dependent on petrochemicals, attracting international industry and developing shipping and transportation networks, especially with the countries of Latin America.