Now, a nation of more immigrants than ever

Census Bureau figures show a big rise in foreign-born residents and their children.

The nation of immigrants has notched a new record: It has more foreign-born and first-generation residents than ever before.

One in 5 Americans either was born abroad or born of parents who were born abroad, according to a new Census Bureau report. The dramatic jump is not only returning the United States to its early 20th-century roots, when it welcomed in another huge wave of immigrants to its shores, it is also fueling anew the debate over exactly how many foreigners the nation should let in.

And the debate is likely to intensify as the numbers increase. "This is just the beginning," says George Borjas, an economist at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "Unless we cut immigration ... who knows when it will max out."

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Immigration proponents say the population boost makes the nation more dynamic demographically, culturally, and economically. The US, alone among the developed nations, is expected to see its population grow this century. But critics point out that the rapid influx is straining social services - particularly in cities - and taking jobs away from other Americans.

"Immigration is importing large numbers of people with much lower levels of education than native-born people," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC. "That affects the job market and the government coffers."

Thanks to the immigration boom of the 1980s and 1990s, the foreign-born population reached a record 28.4 million people last March, according to the new Census report. That's up from 19.8 million in 1990 and 9.6 million in 1970. The surge of immigrants is returning the country to an earlier era when millions of Europeans arrived to start a new life.

At the peak of immigration from 1901 to 1910, residents born abroad represented just under 15 percent of the total population. Wars, immigration restrictions, and the Great Depression shrank that share to less than 5 percent by 1970. Since then, the proportion has been climbing and now stands at 10.4 percent - the highest since the 1930s.

Add in the sons and daughters of immigrants and the proportion rises to 20.4 percent. That's up from the 1970s but not up to the period from 1890 to 1930, when one out of three Americans was either foreign-born or born of foreign-born parents.

But the share should keep rising, the Census report says, because foreign-born women account for a large and rising share of the nation's births. In 1970, immigrants accounted for one in 20 US births. By 2000, they were responsible for one in five.

If the surge in immigrant numbers looks similar to a century ago, its composition has changed dramatically. While most of America's early immigrants came from Europe, Asia and Latin America account for as many as nine out of the top 10 leading countries of origin now.

Mexico alone accounts for more than a quarter of America's immigrants - the largest share recorded from any one country since 1890, when some 30 percent of the foreign-born population was from Germany.

The population concentrations have also moved. In the early 20th century, immigrants came to the Eastern US and the Midwest. Today, the West predominates with heavy settlement in the South as well. California, Florida, and Texas alone accounted for nearly two-thirds of the nation's growth in immigrants from 1960 to 2000. The attraction is age-old - a better life.

"In the United States there are many more opportunities than in Mexico - especially for my children," says Javier López, a native of Monterrey, Mexico, who came to the US in 1983. His four children - aged 2 months to 6 years - were born in the US. He now works as an apartment manager in Houston.

The immigrant stream is younger, poorer, and less well-educated than the native population in general. Thus, they're more reliant on social services. In 1999, for example, better than one in five households with foreign-born householders participated in at least one noncash benefit program, such as food stamps, housing assistance, or Medicaid. Among native households, the figure was one in seven. That year, 8 percent of foreign-born households used cash-benefit programs, while only 5.6 of native households did.

That's a double-whammy, points out Mr. Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. While poor people use more government services, they pay less in taxes. Immigration also acts as a subsidy for employers of low-wage labor, retarding technological development and productivity gains, he adds.

On the other hand, these generalizations mask big differences among immigration streams. For example, only a third of Mexican immigrants 25 and older had completed at least high school last year compared with nearly nine in 10 of American natives. On the other hand, the adult foreign-born from Africa outdid even native-born Americans.

Incomes also show wide divergence. In 1999, the average Latin American-born household earned $29,388, far less than the native household. On the other hand, Asian-born households averaged $51,363, well above the average native-born household.

Some experts, such as Professor Borjas of Harvard, worry that new ethnic divisions and tensions could arise if immigrants take several generations to catch up to American standards. But that's not the experience of Holly Romero, daughter of a Vietnamese mother and American Vietnam veteran whose family came here in 1975.

"It was hard, we came with nothing," she recalls. "We sharecropped in Mississippi, mom made egg rolls and catered at country clubs, we worked at chicken factories, and everyone lived together.... We came here with the idea of 'make no ruckus,' don't draw attention to ourselves, and get the best education that we could." She is now an administrative assistant in Houston.

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