Behind population gains: immigrant influx

Surprising growth rate in 2000 census reflects influx into Sun Belt from abroad.

America's population growth slowed steadily in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, but it has suddenly climbed back to levels that surprised even officials at the United States Census Bureau. What happened?

The just-released 2000 Census found that the US added 32.7 million people in the 1990s. That's more than 3 million persons a year. The US population total of 281,421,906 now is expected to surge to 300 million by 2006 and to more than 400 million by 2050.

This accelerating growth won't be fully explained until the Census Bureau releases detailed data from its 2000 survey later this year. Meanwhile, some analysts have pointed to the "baby boom echo" - descendants of the baby boomers - as a principal factor in the population bulge.

However, demographers downplay the "echo" factor. They say there is clearly one primary cause of growth of this magnitude: large-scale immigration.

The effects of immigration are being manifested most dramatically in California, Texas, and Florida. Peter Morrison, a demographer at RAND in California, says that in addition to those Sun Belt states, immigration has also begun to feed population growth in the interior regions of the country. Thousands of immigrants are showing up looking for jobs at meat packing plants in Iowa, farms in Kansas, and factories in Missouri.

Although the short-term effects of immigration can be dramatic, it is the long-term implications that may be the real population story for America.

Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, says that new arrivals in the US during the 1990s accounted for at least 10 million, and perhaps as many as 13 million, of the 32.7 million residents America has added in the census count.

The birthrate factor

But Mr. Camarota estimates that recent immigrants also gave birth to approximately 7 million children in the US in the 1990s.

Added together, this means that 1990s immigrants, combined with children born to recent immigrants, accounted for as many as 20 million - or nearly two-thirds - of America's growth during the past decade.

Without immigration during the past 30 years, Camarota says America's population now would be "modestly stable." That's because birthrates among non-immigrants are near replacement levels, meaning that they are neither adding to nor subtracting from the total population.

Birthrates among immigrants are far higher.

Needed: new schools

The Department of Education notes that recent population growth is driving up the number of students so rapidly that US schools are on the threshold of a century of continuous growth.

A department study says: "This record growth in the student population will translate to new demands on colleges and universities, which are already feeling the pressure. Full-time college enrollment is projected to increase by 19 percent in the next 10 years. The state university system of Florida expects up to 100,000 additional students by 2010."

It continues: "Unlike the 20th century, when enrollment rose and dipped repeatedly, growth in the 21st century will be constant. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of school-age children 5 to 17 years old will increase by 6 percent. In 2020, about 55 million children will be enrolled in our nation's schools, and this number will rise to 60 million by 2030."

Immigration also largely explains why the South and West together picked up over 25 million new residents during the past decade, while the Northeast and Midwest - not nearly as popular with newcomers - gained only 7.5 million.

No surge in Golden State

Even so, growth in California, the most popular state for immigrants, rose only 13.8 percent to 33.9 million. One possible reason: Many people left the state for other parts of the country after California went through a severe recession.

Immigration helped Texas solidify its position as the second-most-populous state, with 20.9 million residents, well ahead of No. 3 New York's 19 million. Meanwhile, immigrant-rich Florida surged to just under 16 million, making it No. 4, and putting the Sunshine State in position to overtake New York in the next 10 to 15 years.

Rounding out the 10 largest states were Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey, and Georgia - but there was some shuffling among those states.

Illinois moved ahead of Pennsylvania, while Georgia climbed into the top 10 by nudging out another fast-growing state, North Carolina. The Tarheel State dropped to 11th, even though it grew by 21 percent, or 1.4 million people, in the past decade. Georgia was up 26 percent, or 1.7 million.

Virginia (12), Massachusetts (13), and Indiana (14) held their positions in the population ranking of states, but the state of Washington vaulted from 18th to 15th place.

Following Washington were Tennessee (16), Missouri (17), Wisconsin (18), and Maryland (19). Arizona, a retirement mecca, grew by 40 percent, and climbed from 24th to 20th - pushing Minnesota out of the top-20 most-populous states.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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