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'90s Saw a Tide of New People

Census: Foreign-born population reaches 30 million, the highest U.S. level since the 1930s. Immigrants are bypassing traditional locales and settling in a host of new states.


More than 30 million U.S. residents are immigrants, bringing their share of the nation's overall population to the highest level since the 1930s, the Census Bureau reported today.

Of the 13.3 million who arrived in the last decade, a smaller percentage settled in California than had in the 1980s as immigrants bypassed traditional gateways to establish beachheads across the South and the Farm Belt.

"We've seen a major dispersal," said Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. "They didn't just go to the old-line states."

Still, California added almost 3.3 million foreign-born residents in the 1990s, topping off an unprecedented three-decade surge that remade the state's identity and economy while igniting a host of political and social issues.

Immigrants--three-quarters of them from Mexico and Asia--now constitute almost 26% of California's population, a level that far surpasses any state.

The new numbers slightly exceed demographers' expectations and previous Census Bureau estimates. They are not from Census 2000; the agency today is releasing state-by-state totals from a first-time supplemental survey of 700,000 homes last year. The Census Bureau wants to expand and conduct this type of survey annually, possibly as a replacement for the decennial long form.

By some measures, immigration reached a crescendo nationally in the 1990s, despite federal reforms meant to curtail legal entry. Almost 44% of the nation's foreign-born arrived in the last 10 years, compared to the previous peak of 32% in 1910.

But California saw its share of new arrivals drop from 37.6% in the 1990 to 24.6% in 2000 as crippling recession, crowding, high living costs, social unrest and natural disaster ate away at its appeal.

Breadbasket mainstays like Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska and Sunbelt states such as Georgia and the Carolinas picked up where California left off, as much as quadrupling their share of immigrants in the last decade.

While providing a jolt of economic energy to those new destinations, the redistribution may also relieve some pressure on social services in California, demographers said. In terms of income, education levels and ability to speak English, the most recent arrivals typically lag behind both natives and immigrants who have been in the United States longer.

"Immigration was way out of scale in California," said Dowell Myers, director of the Demographic Futures Project at USC. "Whatever your politics are, it's just a lot to digest."

Fewer Migrants From Other States

California's rough go in the first half of the 1990s also diminished its appeal to U.S. natives, the census data confirmed.

In earlier decades, more than half of California's residents had relocated from other states. By 2000, that percentage had fallen to 22%. For the first time, newcomers from other states now make up a smaller slice of California's population than international immigrants, said William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute.

The nation's internal population pendulum passed to less crowded, less expensive Western states, including Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming.

"Something magical and seductive brought people here, people drawn by booming industries, the atmosphere of risk taking and the glamour," Frey said. "We've lost a bit of our grip."

As in the 1980s, the biggest chunk of '90s foreign-born newcomers came from Mexico. The Mexican-born U.S. population has grown more than tenfold in 30 years, from about 760,000 in 1970 to almost 8.8 million in 2000. People from Mexico now make up 29% of the nation's immigrant pool, and 44% of California's.

The survey issued today does not break out illegal immigrants. But along with data from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the information suggests that the nation's undocumented population outstrips earlier estimates and may be close to 9 million, perhaps including more than 4 million Mexicans, Passel said.

The numbers hint at the potential impact of plans offered by President Bush and congressional Democrats to expand the paths to legal residence, analysts said.

Those who favor reducing immigration levels said the survey results underlined the need for more--and better-enforced--limits.

"We need a policy more based on skills, that allows somewhat fewer immigrants overall, which would facilitate assimilation," said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies. "It's certainly clear that the networks and family connections are all in place so that any kind of amnesty will cause the immigrant numbers to increase rapidly."

Immigration proponents, however, said the higher-than-expected foreign-born numbers showed that newcomers had been a critical asset to the decade's prosperity, not a drag on it.

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