As US nears milestone, a rising mix of immigrants
ASHLAND, ORE., AND LAWRENCEVILLE, GA.
What keeps America's population clock ticking are people like Dominic Paz.Skip to next paragraph
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On a busy day running Alpha Taxi in Lawrenceville, Ga., he flips through a wad of $10s and $20s as he chats in both English and Spanish on two cellphones while dispatching cabs from a croaking CB radio. An immigrant from Honduras, Mr. Paz points to the blur of cars passing his home base – a bench at a strip mall that caters to Hispanics. "Two, three years ago, it was nothing like this, nothing."
Lawrenceville has grown 27 percent in five years, and a big reason is immigration. In all of Gwinnett County, the number of foreign-born residents has nearly doubled in that time. "It's 80 percent Hispanic," Paz says. "There's a brown face everywhere you look."
While growth is slowing almost everywhere in the developed world, three factors are powering the US population toward the 300 million mark. Couples are having enough babies to replace themselves. People are living longer. And the biggest reason: Immigration to the US has sharply increased in recent decades.
Immigration is not only boosting America's numbers, it's changing the face of the country. That 300 millionth new person, expected in a few weeks, is just as likely to fly in from China (or wade across the Rio Grande from Mexico) as he or she is to be born here. To put it another way: Every 31 seconds another person from abroad is added to the US population roll.
The rise in newcomers – nearly quadruple the number in 1970 – has fueled a widespread backlash against illegal immigrants. That's half the story. The less familiar but also important trend is the influx of highly skilled workers and highly motivated entrepreneurs who have helped the US economy grow.
While 23 percent of the nation's cooks and 20 percent of its janitors were immigrants in 2000, 27 percent of new computer-software engineers were also immigrants, according to a recent Migration Policy Institute study.
Indeed, the more technically educated the group, the more likely immigrants are to be overrepresented in it. While the foreign born make up 15 percent of the overall workforce, according to the 2000 census, they constitute approximately 17 percent of those with a bachelor's degree in science and engineering occupations, 29 percent of those with a master's degree, and 39 percent of those with a doctoral degree.
Already, 1 in 5 US doctors is foreign born, as are 2 in 5 medical scientists, 1 in 5 computer specialists, 1 in 6 people in engineering or science occupations, 1 in 4 astronomers, physicists, chemical, and material scientists, and 1 in 6 biological scientists, according to another Migration Policy Institute study.
"Plainly, high-skilled immigrants are a critical resource for the knowledge-driven economy and play an important role in the country's global dominance in science and engineering and its leadership in technology," write the study's authors, Columbia University economist Neeraj Kaushal and Migration Policy Institute vice president Michael Fix.
In some ways, the nation's big population milestones – America at 100 million, 200 million, and 300 million – bookend the ebb and flow of immigrants.
In 1910, at the height of the last immigration boom and just five years shy of reaching the 100 million mark, nearly 15 percent of Americans were foreign born. For the next 60 years, that percentage dropped steadily, down to less than 5 percent.