AMERICA'S melting pot is getting larger. In population shifts that demographers say presage what's to come for small-town America, many Asians and Hispanics in California have left their urban enclaves for the suburbs.
Census figures released here Feb. 25 have shocked officials in the nation's premiere melting-pot state. They indicate a decade-long shift in immigrants' choices as to where to settle.
``The most intriguing thing about the new immigrant shifts is their pattern away from the traditional barrios, ghettos, and Chinatowns of the past outward to small towns and suburbs,'' says census adviser Leo Estrada, a professor of urban studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.
California examples: Fresno experienced a 626 percent increase in Asians. Palmdale's Asian population grew 1,820 percent. Also, huge increases in the number of Hispanics in small towns - including Chino, Corona, Upland, Rialto, and Ontario - have taken officials by surprise.
``The movement outward is dramatic and very impressive. It signals a new shift in the way immigrants think about America,'' Dr. Estrada says.
Much of the suburban growth of minority populations was the result of direct immigration, with the new residents bypassing the traditional port-of-entry cities. But minority urban dwellers seeking to escape city problems - crime, gangs, smog, congestion - also are seeking refuge in smaller communities.
Since the last census, in 1980, the number of Hispanics in California has increased by 70 percent and now accounts for a fourth of the state population. Asians now make up 10 percent of state residents.
The white population has declined in some major metropolitan areas. Hispanics now account for 38 percent of the Los Angeles County population, compared with 41 percent for Anglos - an 8 percent decline.
A near-perfect example of the new plurality exists in Carson, a town of 84,000 where blacks, Anglos, Hispanics, and Asians live in roughly equal proportions, from 22 to 28 percent each.
``The political mechanisms we invent to accommodate this new diversity will chart a direction for the rest of the country for decades,'' says Peter Morrison, a senior demographer at Rand Corporation. A lawsuit in Los Angeles last year resulted in a federal court order redrawing district lines to ensure the election of a Hispanic supervisor.
``These new figures certainly imply there is going to be lots of interest in the redistricting process statewide as these various groups find their new voices,'' says Mr. Morrison.
Sergio Munoz, editor of La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper, points out that only three of 45 California congressional seats are held by Hispanics. With the 6 million increase in California population in the '80s - more than half of which were Hispanic - California won seven more seats in Congress. ``Hispanics are the biggest reason the state has won this increased representation,'' says Mr. Munoz. ``Yet, without more litigation, how many of those [seats] will be held by Hispanics? The lines as they are drawn now impede us.''
Asian growth outstripped the state average of 127 percent in six counties and six of the state's 10 largest cities: Fresno (626 percent) Anaheim (184 percent), San Jose (194 percent), Santa Ana (169 percent), Sacramento (131 percent), and San Diego (129 percent).
The trend is similar in many parts of the United States, according to Morrison. Census figures for some 30 states have been released, and many report rises in Asian populations five to seven times the overall rate of growth of the state population. A recent RAND study chronicles Laotian Hmong populations in St. Paul, Minn., and Missoula, Mont.; Cambodians in Atlanta and in Providence, R.I.; Tai Dam Vietnamese in Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa; Salvadorans and other Central Americans in Arlington, Va., and Jamaicans and Puerto Ricans in Hartford, Conn..
``In terms of American society, the dispersions of Asians and Hispanics to suburbs and small towns is a good thing,'' says James Paul Allen, a population expert at California State University in Northridge. ``Over time, they tend to take a greater stake in the local community and its economy, and ultimately develop greater roots into America.''
But Estrada points out the lack in nonmetropolitan areas of the traditional services that have grown up in inner-city areas. ``The immigrants arrive with few resources to draw upon, and the question becomes how to train and educate them,'' he comments.
Ernest Velasquez, director of the Fresno County Department of Social Services, says the influx of Hmong refugees from Laos has put a ``tremendous strain'' on his budget - upwards of $100 million a year for refugees alone. A few hundred came in 1978, attracted to the farming community of relatively affordable housing. About 30,000 now reside in Fresno, mostly in the south end of town. Though state and federal assistance pays 95 percent of the cost of education and training in several trades, the local community has a very difficult time placing the newcomers in jobs.
It is the young who assimilate best, often through the schools, says Velasquez. The old resist their host community, and the older hosts react negatively to some of the public ceremonies of the newcomers, such as drumming and dancing.
Allen cautions that data are not yet specific on whether the immigrants who are moving out of urban enclaves are newer arrivals or second- and third-generation immigrants. He says he expects that it is some of both.