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America's new not-melting pot

As immigrants increasingly move to only a few cities, native-bornAmericans are leaving for cheaper pastures.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor JamesBlair in Los Angeles, Laura Gatland in Chicago, and Cathy Scott in LasVegas contributed to this report. / March 5, 1999


A stroll along devon Avenue, a commercial artery on Chicago's north side, is like taking a culinary tour of the world.

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Restaurants cater to almost any taste - from borscht to baklava. There is tandoori chicken for Pakistanis, falafel on Israeli menus, and blini for Russian devotees. The street is a striking example of the American melting pot.

But a drive northwest of Las Vegas tells a different story. Five years ago, there were 1,000 homes in the area. Today, there are 57,000. The influx is transforming the salmon sands of the desert into a middle-class development - one overwhelmingly white.

Welcome to America's new demographic magnets with strange two-way powers. A handful of urban centers are drawing record numbers of immigrants. But they're also pushing away native residents to other regions of the country that are older, more middle class, and far less diverse. Some demographers warn that this new divide will make it harder for the US to assimilate its latest wave of immigrants.

The political and economic implications are enormous. The last time so many newcomers piled onto US shores - nearly a century ago - native-born citizens and immigrants lived in different neighborhoods but rubbed shoulders on the way to work. No longer. If current trends continue, they'll have to wave from airplane windows.

By 2025, according to one estimate, 12 states could have populations less than 60 percent white, while another 12 would have white populations in excess of 85 percent.

"The US is not becoming a single melting pot the way we thought of it at the turn of the century," says William Frey, senior fellow at the Milken Institute, a think tank in Santa Monica, Calif. Instead, it's stirring multiple melting pots in a few large metropolises, while much of the rest of the country diversifies much less slowly or not at all.

The great divide cuts across traditional boundaries and draws new ones. Suburbs are starting to look more like cities. So many immigrants are flooding some areas that they could change the definition of what it means to be an American.

"The notion is that those [immigrants] get assimilated into the American mainstream," says William Clark, a Los Angeles geographer. But "if you've got 4 [million] to 5 million Hispanics in L.A. County, assimilation to what?... What's the American mainstream?"

In some places, it's hard to tell. Consider: A record 26 million immigrants already live in the US and some 800,000 to 900,000 newcomers arrive legally each year (another 400,000 come illegally). That's nearly 10 percent of the population - not quite as high as the early 1900s but double the percentage of 1970.

Typically, the newcomers are younger, poorer, and less well-educated than the native-born population (although a liberal sprinkling are more highly educated). They're also much more likely to have children.

The influx of immigrants plus the children they bear has accounted for nearly 60 percent of the nation's population growth since 1990. That's a sharp break from the early part of the century when fertility rates among native-born Americans were also high.

Moreover, today's immigrants are more concentrated than ever, says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank. The top four gateway states - California, New York, Florida, and Texas - have a 20 percent greater share of the nation's immigrant population than the top four states did in past years. Some two-thirds of those who arrived in the US between 1985 and 1997 settled in just 10 metropolitan areas, says Mr. Frey.

While new Americans are flowing to these gateway metropolises, native-born Americans are fleeing. Eight of the 10 largest magnet cities for the foreign born lost native-born populations. And the leave-takers aren't moving to the suburbs, they're leaving the region entirely.

Although it exists, fear of immigrants isn't firing the new regionalism. It's the promise of better jobs, lower living costs, and less congestion in places such as Phoenix and Denver.

These places are usually also less ethnically diverse and more middle class.

Take Las Vegas, the No. 2 destination for native-born Americans. "They drive in with little or no connection to Las Vegas, open the newspaper, and find six pages of jobs for skilled or unskilled workers," says Joseph Dias, a sociologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.