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California and the West

State Leads as Home to Immigrants

Census: A study finds that 25% of Californians are foreign-born, the largest figure in the nation.


WASHINGTON — California leads the nation as a destination for immigrants, with 25% of its population coming from other nations, the U.S. Census reported Wednesday in its latest gauge of the country's changing demographics.

Nationwide, 10% of the population was foreign-born in 1997, a total of 25.8 million people, the largest number in U.S. history. In California, there were 8 million foreign-born residents in 1997, the most recent year for which detailed data are available.

The share of foreign-born residents was the highest since 1930, the end of an era of large-scale immigration. During the first decades of the 20th century, waves of immigrants poured into the nation's cities. While the numbers of Italians, Germans and Poles swelled the populations in the Northeast, more recent immigrants--from Mexico, the Philippines and China--are gravitating heavily to regions such as California and Texas.

The metropolitan area encompassing Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties is home to almost 20% of the immigrants, the largest concentration in the nation, the Census found. The total was 4.8 million, or 31% of the region's residents, in 1997.

And most of those are relative newcomers, said Joseph Costanzo, the Census Bureau analyst who co-authored the report. About 65% of the Los Angeles area's foreign-born have come to the United States since 1979.

Following the Los Angeles region as hubs for immigration are the New York metropolitan area, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, and Chicago.

"America has revived one of its greatest traditions: that of being a nation of immigrants," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration organization. "In the same way that immigrants played a vital role in helping America emerge this century as the world's lone superpower, immigration will play an equally vital role in powering America into the 21st century."

In one of the most detailed portraits yet of the nation's immigrant population, the Census revealed that foreign-born residents--half of whom are from Latin America and a quarter of whom come from Asian countries--are, on average, more likely to work and more likely to be poor than native-born Americans.

Within the broad figures lies a wealth of detail that underscores the diversity of these newcomers:

* About 36% of Asian-born residents who work are employed as managers or professionals--a higher percentage than for native-born American (30%) and much higher than immigrants from Latin America (11%).

* Two-thirds of families with a member born in Latin America (and 74% of those from Mexico) have children at home, compared to 48% of households where all members are native-born.

* Asian-born residents had the highest rate of U.S. citizenship of any foreign-born group, with 44% having become naturalized American citizens. By contrast, 24% of residents born in Latin America--and only 15% of those from Mexico--had become citizens by 1997.

* Education levels vary widely among immigrants: 71% of people from Africa and 63% from Asia attended college, compared with 48% from Europe and 22% from Latin America. Among the U.S. born population, 49% attended college.

California's pace-setting role as home to the foreign-born reflects the immigrants' lands of origin and a key trend in their settlement patterns: Many of the foreign-born tend to cluster in or near the points of entry for immigrants to the United States, said Costanzo, who prepared the report with Census Bureau analyst Dianne Schmidley. Large numbers of Asians immigrated to San Francisco and Los Angeles, people from Mexico moved to Los Angeles; and people from the Caribbean moved to New York and Miami, Costanzo said.

The Census completed this year is likely to show that the foreign-born documented in 1997 are following a time-honored tradition and beginning to disperse geographically. "Anecdotal evidence so far suggests they are following the migration pattern of natives, and moving to less traditional urban areas than in the past," Costanzo said. For example, there are local versions of Silicon Valley all over the United States and they are attracting high-tech workers from Asia, he said.

Such patterns may be accelerated by Congress's passage this week of a measure that would allow as many as 195,000 skilled foreign workers to enter the United States annually for the next three years, to fill critical labor shortages in the nation's booming high-tech industries.

Sharry cautioned that in highlighting the contrasts between the pay and education levels of the native and foreign-born, the Census Report is providing a snapshot that will change over time. Studies of Latino immigrants suggest that in as little as a single generation, key indicators of economic well-being, such as homeownership rates, begin to match the levels of native-born Americans. "These are useful snapshots," Sharry said. "But social mobility is part of the American immigrant experience."

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