Every day, new immigrants pour into America's largest metropolitan areas, swelling the population and diversifying the culture. There's only one problem. An increasing number of those immigrants are later picking up and moving somewhere else. And unlike the middle-class whites of the 1960s and '70s, they're not fleeing to the suburbs, they're moving to entirely different cities that are more affordable.
This migration bodes well for the assimilation of these immigrants and the diversification of middle America. But some observers worry that it will drive a further wedge between rich and poor in the nation's largest cities.
"New immigrants come to cities like New York or Los Angeles regardless of the economy; they come because they have family connections there," says William Frey, a demographer and author of a new report on the subject for the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. At the same time, the "economic outmigration" taking place at almost the same rate raises the prospects of a two-tier economy that could ultimately polarize the groups.
"There is a potential concern about the availability of education in the long term for children in the lower tier," he adds. "And education in the long-term is one of the ways to bridge those two communities together."
The rising cost of living and lack of job opportunity are driving the outmigration. In the last two years, for example, thousands of immigrants have left the densely packed, well-established "Little Guyana" section of Queens, N.Y. Their destination: Schenectady, a former manufacturing town in upstate New York.
In less than two years, Schenectady's Guyanese population has quadrupled, to approximately 5,000, estimates Elcid Ramotar, a business developer and liaison at the city's Economic Development Corporation.
The draw: affordable housing. In Queens, a typical single-family home can sell for $500,000, says Mr. Ramotar. The same home in Schenectady only costs $100,000.
Back in Queens, the outflow is noticeable. "So many people have left for upstate, and many more people are planning to leave," says Archie Narine, a wholesale distributor of West Indies products in Queens. Still, he says, "new immigrants are coming [to Queens] every day. You can't stop that flow."
In metropolitan New York as a whole, nearly 1 million new immigrants arrived between 1995 and 2000, according to census figures. But like other major gateways, New York is having trouble holding onto them.
"Outmigration is more multicultural," says Mr. Frey. While "white flight" dominated outflow from gateway cities in previous decades, immigrants are increasingly joining the middle-class exodus.
In the late 1990s, for example, the nation's six "immigrant magnet metros" - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, and Miami - gained 3 million migrants from abroad. But they experienced a net loss of 2.1 million residents of all ethnicities, according to Frey's analysis of sampled census data, released last week.
The proportion of non-Hispanic white outmigrants decreased in most of the magnet metros. In Los Angeles, the decline was starkest: only 35 percent of net domestic outmigrants were non-Hispanic whites at the end of the 1990s, compared to 78 percent a decade earlier.
Some see the new trends as a positive sign for the rest of the country. Domestic migrants and new immigrants alike have increasingly left the nation's major cities, finding better jobs and cheaper housing elsewhere.
Cities in the Southeast and West attracted the largest numbers of migrants from other areas in the United States, according to Frey. The populations in Phoenix, Atlanta, and Las Vegas each grew by more than 100,000 residents from 1995 to 2000.
These trends are ultimately weakening the power and influence of the coasts, says Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., as jobs, technology, and people of various cultures are more widely distributed across the nation.
"It's not a bad thing," Mr. Kotkin says. "It makes the country overall a more vibrant place to live."
That immigrants are increasingly moving to nontraditional gateways is a sign of hope, for many, since it can be viewed as a measure of their assimilation.
"It shows that immigrants are not remaining a separate class for long," says Ann Keating, a professor of urban history at North Central College near Chicago. "They are adopting the mores of American society.... They, too, are searching for more opportunity."