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U.S. Dividing Into Immigrant Zones, Report Contends

March 09, 2000|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new "demographic divide" has started to profoundly influence American economic and political life as immigrants and their families cluster ever more unevenly across the country, a new report contends.

The report, being released today by the Santa Monica-based Milken Institute, points to growing differences between longtime immigrant magnets such as Southern California and less diverse heartland communities.

Demographer William H. Frey and economist Ross C. DeVol, the study's coauthors, challenge the prevailing wisdom among scholars that California's changing ethnic makeup is beginning to be mirrored in a significant way in middle America.

That view, and a public impression that the Midwest and other regions are becoming more ethnically diverse, greatly overstates the actual changes that are taking place, the authors contend.

If their projections prove accurate--and they were immediately challenged by other experts--it could affect everything from regional social tensions to the messages delivered by marketers and politicians.

As Frey, a prominent demographer, put it in an interview: "I didn't hear George W. Bush speaking Spanish in Georgia."

The coauthors write that melting-pot regions including California, Texas, southern Florida, the Eastern Seaboard and Chicago "will become increasingly younger, multiethnic and culturally vibrant."

By contrast, the report says, so-called heartland regions will become older and more staid while remaining far less ethnically diverse.

These patterns of settlement among immigrants and U.S.-born Latinos and Asians are contributing to "regional demographic divisions that will be just as important as old distinctions such as city versus suburb or rural versus urban," the study says.

DeVol said in an interview that regions drawing lots of immigrants could be long-term economic winners. "A new infusion of people who want to get ahead in life, and who instill that in their children, behooves those areas," he said.

But the report's "demographic divide" finding was disputed by some immigration specialists. They contend that the researchers' methodology misses a substantial recent dispersion of immigrants around the country.

At the same time, a prominent immigration opponent agreed with the notion of a widening demographic divide, but disputed the authors' generally optimistic view of the prospects for areas with lots of immigrants.

In such regions, immigrants and their children often are "segregated in their schools and communities without any opportunity for advancement," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which lobbies to restrict immigration.

He also argued that the trends cited in the Milken report could lead to troubling and irresolvable political and social divisions between different regions.

Frey and DeVol based their projections on recent U.S. Census figures tracking changes in metropolitan areas across the country from 1990 through 1998.

Their figures show that just 10 metropolitan areas, led by Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco, are home to 61% of all Asian Americans. What's more, during the eight-year period tracked by the researchers, these areas continued to draw 60% of the increase in Asian Americans, a category including immigrants and their U.S.-born offspring.

Likewise, 10 big metropolitan areas are home to 58% of the nation's foreign- and U.S.-born Latinos. The five-county Los Angeles region alone is home to one-fifth of the nation's Latinos. Overall, these 10 areas received 52% of the increase in the Latino population from 1990 to 1998.

Frey and DeVol write that a few "multiple melting pot" regions will remain the center of immigrant assimilation for years to come. They attribute that pattern largely to immigration laws that emphasize family ties as criteria for entry.

As some members of a family immigrate, the argument goes, it opens the door for more of their relatives to follow. The extended immigrant families then tend to cluster in the same communities.

Frey and DeVol write that this pattern "especially is the case for lower-skilled immigrants, since they are more dependent on kinship ties for gaining entry to informal networks," including those leading to jobs.

The influence of immigrants in melting-pot communities is magnified by another factor: Many of the same areas drawing lots of immigrants also are experiencing an exodus of native-born Americans.

According to the figures in the Milken report, the Los Angeles area lost 1.5 million "domestic migrants"--mainly native-born Americans--to other parts of the country from 1990 to 1998.

What's more, among the top metropolitan destinations for domestic migrants--a list led by Atlanta, Las Vegas and Phoenix--only one, Dallas, also is one of the nation's biggest magnets for immigrants.

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