EVEN as it attracts an unprecedented flow of immigrants, the United States may be losing more of its promise as a ``melting pot.''
A new picture is emerging of a country of sharpening regional divisions along racial and economic lines, according to recent studies of the 1990 US Census by academics.
The US today is the destination for a larger and more varied group of immigrants than ever before. Ten million foreigners moved to the US, legally or illegally, in the 1980s. There were 7 million in the 1970s, 3.8 million in the 1960s, and 9 million from 1900 to 1910, when the last historic wave of immigration peaked, according to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the Urban Institute, based in Washington, D.C.
Asian, Latin influx
Most newcomers today are minorities in the US, predominantly from a wide range of countries in Latin America and Asia, as well as from Africa. This contrasts with the 1960s and earlier decades, when restrictive US immigration laws ensured that the bulk of those arriving were of European and Canadian origin.
Contrary to expectations, demographers now see evidence from changing regional profiles that the influx of immigrants is provoking sharper racial divisions and ``white flight'' instead of greater racial and cultural mixing.
``Rather than leading toward a new national diversity, the new migration dynamics are contributing to a demographic `Balkanization' across broad regions and areas of the country,'' concludes Dr. William Frey, a demographer with the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center. He recently published the first studies of the 1990 US Census Bureau migration data.
According to census data, immigrants to the United States between 1985 and 1990 were highly concentrated in the seven states of California, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, and Massachusetts. In each of these states except Florida, immigrants were the main source of population growth during that period. The flow of immigrants boosted the percentage of minorities living in these states, and in some areas also sharply increased the population of poor people.
At the same time, at least partly as a result of the immigrant influx, all seven states except Florida experienced a net outflow of poor, often less-educated white residents.
This trend suggests that in addition to racial bias, economic forces fueled by immigration - such as intensified competition for low-skilled jobs and affordable housing - pushed the whites to leave, demographers say.
The pattern of some areas attracting large numbers of foreign immigrants while losing poor white residents was most pronounced in large metropolitan areas within the states. For example, between 1985 and 1990, the cities of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, and Boston ranked among the highest in both population gains from immigration and losses from an outflow of poor whites.
The Miami metropolitan region also fits the pattern, with poor whites leaving the immigrant-flooded city. (On a statewide basis, however, Florida marks an exception to the trend because of the sizeable migration of these low-income whites to other cities such as Tampa and St. Petersberg.)
As a result of these trends toward concentration, demographers say, many recent arrivals to the US, especially the poor, are facing far greater hurdles in their quest to integrate as ``Americans'' than did their predecessors during the last major wave of US immigration at the turn of the century.
``The melting pot theory will not play out as well'' for today's immigrants, Frey claims. These trends are troubling, he says, because, while immigrants have traditionally been segregated by neighborhood, they face divisions today on the scale of metropolitan areas and perhaps even whole states.
If the pattern continues, new political schisms are likely to emerge between parts of the country, between predominantly white, middle- and upper-class, and elderly residents on the one hand, and those with younger, multi-ethnic, and lower-income populations on the other, he says. Such political schisms could worsen as the minority population of the United States grows to a projected figure near 50 percent by the year 2050, he continues.
Experts say several factors are contributing to the trend toward demographic division rather than integration:
* An increasingly bifurcated economy, in which low-skilled immigrant laborers have relatively few opportunities to work their way up into higher paying, skilled jobs and middle-class status.
* The wider geographic mobility of the US population, which has allowed native-born Americans - including mainly low-income whites, but also blacks - to respond to the concentrated influx of minority immigrants by ``fleeing'' to outlying regions.
* The strong tendency for immigrants to locate in a few existing racial and ethnic enclaves, as they always have, rather than to disperse across the country.
* And lingering racial and ethnic prejudice on the part of Americans born in this country.
The continuation of these demographic trends in the 1990s and coming decades, Frey says, will depend mainly on two factors: whether US immigration laws permit a similar ongoing influx of immigrants; and how well these immigrants succeed in overcoming the greater obstacles to middle-class status and assimilation that concentration of immigrants poses.
``If the trend continues, there will be large parts of the country that don't have much contact with a multicultural environment and are less sensitive to the interests of minorities on such issues as bilingual education, health care, and welfare reform,'' Frey says.