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America's New Immigrant Capitals

The Economy
America's New Immigrant Capitals
Brian Wingfield and Jewel Edwards 10.24.08, 12:00 PM ETWashington, D.C. -

Forget Miami, Los Angeles and New York--America's newest immigrant capitals are the country's recent boom towns.

Top of the list: Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla., with a 122% increase in its foreign-born population from 2000 to 2007, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of U.S. Census Bureau information. Also ranking high are the metro areas of Nashville, Tenn., (74% increase), Indianapolis (71%), Orlando, Fla., (64%) and Raleigh, N.C. (62%).

It makes sense. Like everyone else, immigrants are drawn to places with jobs. These towns offer a relatively low cost of living, compared with their big-city brethren and, in recent years, ample opportunities for work in various fields. Raleigh is a hub of North Carolina's "Research Triangle," and in 2007, about 15% of its working immigrant population worked in professional, scientific and administrative occupations, according to the Census Bureau. Orlando, a major tourist destination, is a hub for service-sector jobs.

Who are these immigrants? Nationwide, they're overwhelmingly Latino. About 54% of the nation's 38 million foreign-born residents hail from Latin America and the Caribbean, according to government estimates. The next largest group, from Asia, accounts for about 27% of the nation's immigrant population. These figures do not account for the estimated 11.9 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

However, depending on the city, immigrant populations can vary widely. In Phoenix, more than 70% of the foreign-born population is from Latin America. In Columbus, Ohio, the largest immigrant group--about 40%--is from Asia. Nashville happens to be home to one of the largest Kurdish populations in the country.

Just as it's easy to spot America's boom towns by looking at where immigrant growth has increased the most, the places where the bubble has burst are also instantly recognizable. Case in point: Cape Coral, Fla., where 28% of the metro area's working immigrant community worked in construction-related jobs in 2007. Now that the Real Estate party's over, Cape Coral-Fort Myers is one of the worst places to ride out the economic storm.

The situation is much the same in Las Vegas, which ranks No. 4 on our list. It has been one of the fastest-growing cities in America in terms of gross domestic product (67% increase from 2001 to 2006) and foreign-born population (65% increase from 2001 to 2007). Census Bureau data show 58% of Sin City's working immigrants held vulnerable construction or service-sector jobs.

What happens to immigration during a downturn? Either it slows, or in some cases--depending on economic situations in their countries of origin--immigrants in the U.S. may return to their home countries. While the overall number of new arrivals to the U.S. has increased every year since 2003, experts say they're seeing a decline in the rate of growth for immigration, something that's likely to continue with a recession.

Oddly, that could be a good thing for the overall U.S. economy. With national unemployment already at 6.1%, a reduction in the potential labor force might provide some relief to communities hit particularly hard by the downturn.

"An outflow of immigrants, or a reduction in the inflow, could actually lessen the recessionary pressures," writes professor George Borjas, an expert on labor economics at Harvard University, in an e-mail.

But there also could be negative effects, depending on the severity of the downturn. For example, the presence of fewer immigrants might further relax the demand on housing. It might also disrupt the "mini economies" immigrants tend to sustain within their own communities.

"Immigrants have become so interwoven into the economic fabric of those cities, to loosen that fabric is going to weaken the city," says John Kasarda, a professor at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Of course, not all cities--or their immigrant populations--will be affected in the same ways. "The narrative is not always straightforward, as places are different," says Audrey Singer, an immigration expert at Brookings and co-editor of Twenty-First-Century Gateways, a book published earlier this year which identifies new trends in immigration.

These gateways are cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas--places with sprawling suburbs that are drawing immigrants for various reasons. Some, like Austin, are high-tech centers that offer abundant technology jobs. Others, like Atlanta, are emerging as major international hubs.

In all cases, the native-born population has also grown rapidly along with economic growth. Not surprisingly, many of these cities appear near the top of our list of metro areas with the greatest increases in immigrant populations, including Charlotte (a 64% increase), Phoenix (61%) and Atlanta (58%).

An additional note on our analysis: It accounts for only those metro areas with foreign-born populations of more than 65,000; the Census Bureau doesn't provide detailed annual data for population groups smaller than that. Foreign-born residents account for about 12.6% of the U.S. population. Our findings include cities where this group ranges from 5% to 22% of the total.

In PIctures: America's New Immigrant Capitals