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`A Dispersion of New Minorities' to New Places

The foreign-born are increasingly moving to the South and Midwest, U.S. census data suggest.

August 15, 2006|Robin Fields | Times Staff Writer

Immigrants have settled into a broad array of American communities over the last five years, bringing unprecedented ethnic diversity to the nation as a whole, new census data shows.

The half-decade since 2000 has brought gradual and predictable ethnic changes to California, where of 35 million residents, a third are Latino, and where Asians outnumber African Americans more than 2 to 1.

But changes in some parts of the nation have been dramatic.

South Carolina's immigrant population jumped 47% between 2000 and 2005. Arkansas saw the nation's largest percentage increase in Latinos, 48% from 2000 to 2005.

"There's been a very sharp spreading-out," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "What we saw as the tip of the iceberg in the 2000 census has come into its own. What we see now is a dispersion of new minorities to new destinations."

The population data released today provide the first large-scale glimpse of how U.S. communities of 65,000 and larger have changed since the turn of the century.

The nation remains about two-thirds white, but minorities make up an increasing share of the population in every state but West Virginia, the data show.

Latinos, who became the country's largest minority in 2000, continue to outpace other groups. They now constitute 14.5% of the population, up from 12.5% five years ago.

Though California still draws more immigrants than any other state, its appeal has faded somewhat over the last 15 years. Its share of new arrivals has dropped from 37.6% in 1990 to 24.6% in 2000 to 21% in 2005.

Over the last five years, increasing numbers of the foreign-born have put down roots in the South and the Midwest, drawn by plentiful jobs and lower costs of living, demographers said.

The trend "has really intensified," said demographer Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington.

Dowell Myers, a USC professor of urban planning and demography, said his research showed that California remained the prime destination for legal immigrants, perhaps because of its established gateway communities, whereas illegal immigration was "spreading to the red states": "If you have a relative here, they can sponsor you legally. If not, you're going where it's cheaper and where the jobs are."

Frey said the widening waves of newcomers, legal and illegal, had elevated immigration as a political issue.

"There's enough visibility in enough parts of the country to put it on the radar," he said.

The new population data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey of 3 million households a year. The agency follows up some paper surveys with phone interviews or personal visits.

The yearly survey replaced the Census Bureau's "long form" sent every 10 years to one in six households. It contains the same social and economic data.

The annual survey is "a gold mine," particularly for government officials in fast-growing areas, said Jay Waite, the Census Bureau's associate director for decennial programs.

Indeed, in California, state, county and city officials say they are watching the survey's rollout with anticipation.

Today's trove covers race, immigration, education and age for communities of 65,000 or larger. Later this month, the Census Bureau will release economic and housing information.

The state Department of Finance is monitoring the survey results, checking them against other sources of information to measure accuracy. Ultimately, it may help track people moving into or out of California.

"It can be a tremendous tool," said Linda Gage, the agency's senior demographer.

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