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Steady Increase of US Immigrant Population Sparks Debate - 2002-02-10

The latest Census Bureau analysis of statistics collected last year shows a steady increase of the U.S. immigrant population to more than 28 million. That means today that 20 percent of American residents are foreign born or children of immigrants.

The latest Census bureau report says 10 percent of the U.S. population is foreign-born, roughly equal to the percentages registered 150 years ago during the period of large-scale migration from Europe.

The report's author, Diane Schmidley, says one in five residents of the United States today is either foreign-born or the child of an immigrant. "The combined population is about 56 million people. About 28 million are foreign-born and 28 million are the children of the foreign-born," she says. "This is about 20 percent, or one in five of every U.S. resident."

Ms. Schmidley says more than half the total number of immigrants comes from Latin America. One out of three comes from Mexico.

The report indicates the bulk of the immigrant population is concentrated in six so-called gateway states, including Texas, California and Florida.

But immigration analyst Jeffrey Passel of Washington's Urban Institute says that information is misleading. "The big six states have almost 70 percent of the immigrants and those states are the principal destinations for immigrants," he says. "But what's been changing, if you look at the same data ten years ago, those states had 75 percent of the immigrants. So in fact what's been happening is a geographic diversification for immigrants moving into new parts of the country."

Mr. Passel says the census information shows immigrants are moving elsewhere in search of jobs, North Carolina and Georgia to Arizona and Nevada.

Kathleen Newland of the Migration Policy Institute says that population shift has turned immigration into a truly national issue. "It means you have state and local officials who have never thought about immigration, who thought this is an issue for New York, this is an issue for Chicago and now find it's an issue for Nashville, Raleigh or Marshall Town. And that's a big difference," she says.

Ms. Newland sees implications for immigrant-related policies. "It means communities are having to come to grips with services they offer to newcomers and the programs they have to make immigration a success both for the newcomers and the communities receiving them," she says.

Immigration analysts like Mr. Passel say social and welfare policies need to take into consideration families that have immigrant parents and U.S. born sons and daughters who are considered U.S. citizens at birth. "The policies tend to treat families as if they fit into one box or the other a family of citizens or a family of immigrants," he says. "And that is clearly not the case. Most of the families with children that have immigrants, also have citizens."

Mr. Passel says current welfare policies that deny benefits to immigrants need to change. "Right now a lot of the lines we draw on things like food stamps and some of the social welfare benefits, the line we've drawn is to differentiate between citizens and aliens. The policies used to differentiate between people legally in the United States, citizens and legal immigrants, and illegal immigrants, and that policy makes a lot more sense," he says.

Mr. Passel says approaching welfare issues on the basis of "us and them" only transforms the immigrant into a pariah. Policies, he says, need to reflect the contribution of immigrant labor to the economy.