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As US nears milestone, a rising mix of immigrants

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But in 1970, not long after the US population reached 200 million, the figure began to climb again. Today, it's back up to over 12 percent.

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The result: a smaller share of immigrants than in 1910, but a far greater number. Estimates put the total near 35 million (legal and illegal). That's 2-1/2 times as many immigrants as there were in 1910.

Hispanics take the lead

There's another difference: Whereas the early 1900s saw thousands of Europeans arriving through Ellis Island, then filling up New York's tenement buildings or pushing on to become factory workers, farmers, and shopkeepers in the Midwest, most immigrants today come from Latin America or Asia. As of 2000, 52 percent were from Latin America, 26 percent from Asia, and only 19 percent from Europe.

Immigrants are also spreading out, changing the complexion of corners of the country unaccustomed to waves of foreign-speaking newcomers.

The South, in particular, has seen rapid change: Eastern European dealers at casinos in Mobile, Ala.; Korean shopkeepers in Atlanta; Mexican Christmas tree harvesters on North Carolina's Appalachian slopes.

Some of the states with the fastest- growing immigrant populations lie in the South. Some parts of the region have seen up to 300 percent growth in immigrant populations since 1990.

Such growth is evident in Lawrenceville, the seat of Gwinnett County. Planners see a vibrant future. The county school system has set up a special language center to test new students. There are enough new immigrant children here each year to fill a new school, as they make up about 1,500 of the 7,000 additional students flowing into the school district each year.

Ban on taco stands

But there's another side. County commissioners earlier this year banned mobile taco stands for being too trashy looking. This year, the Georgia legislature passed the Security and Immigration Compliance Act, one of the nation's toughest bills to curb illegal immigration.

The law caused a ripple of fear, says Paz in Lawrenceville. As he talks to one Mexican woman grabbing a ride, she says she'll go to Canada when the law takes effect next summer. "People are afraid," says Paz.

So are many American workers, who fear that immigrants will take their jobs. The data are inconclusive.

The Pew Hispanic Center recently used US census information to compare increases in the foreign-born population with employment opportunities at the state level. It looked at two periods in particular: the boom years of the 1990s and the downturn and recovery since 2000.

The bottom line, according to Pew associate research director Rakesh Kochhar: "The size of the foreign-born workforce in a state appears to have no relationship to the employment prospects for native-born workers."

In general, other experts agree.

"While the number of immigrants is very large, the impact on the overall economy is very small," says Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies.

But, he added in recent testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, "While the impact on the economy as a whole may be tiny, the effect on some Americans, particularly workers at the bottom of the labor market, may be quite large."

That's a major concern for those who want to see the federal government change what they see as too-liberal immigration policies and not enough border security.