Immigrants now constitute bigger slice of American pie

Los Angeles Times

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

Of the 13.3 million who arrived in the past decade, a smaller percentage settled in California than had in the ‘80s 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 ’90s, capping 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 percent of California’s population, a level that far surpasses any other state.

The new numbers, which come from state-by-state totals from a first-time supplemental survey of 700,000 homes last year, slightly exceed demographers’ expectations and previous Census Bureau estimates. The Census Bureau is looking to expand and conduct the supplemental survey annually, possibly as a replacement for the decennial long form.

By some measures, immigration reached a crescendo nationally in the ’90s, despite federal measures meant to curtail legal entry. Almost 44 percent of the nation’s foreign-born arrived in the past 10 years, compared with the previous peak of 32 percent in 1910.

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

Breadbasket mainstays such as 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.

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.

“Immigration was way out of scale in California,” said Dowell Myers, director of the Demographic Futures Project at the University of Southern California. “Whatever your politics … it’s just a lot to digest.”

As in the ‘80s, 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 percent of the nation’s immigrant pool, and 44 percent of California’s.

The survey issued Monday 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.

“The anti-immigration folks say they’re bringing us down, they aren’t good enough to be Americans,” said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for the National Immigration Forum. “They said the same about Poles, Slavs and Jews. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong now.”