Wednesday, March 05, 2008

For more immigrants, suburbia's a nice fit

For more immigrants, suburbia's a nice fit
By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — Twice, Nancy Cadavid left her native Colombia to live in the United States. Twice, she settled in cities that have long attracted large numbers of immigrants — New York first, Miami second.

Now that she's here to stay, Cadavid, 44, has chosen to live far from the large cities that have been traditional immigrant gateways. She works two jobs and owns a house here in central Florida, near Orlando and Disney World. Her daughter graduated from Florida State University and works in advertising in Tampa. Her son attends community college and works part time at Disney.

Cadavid's tale is more than an immigrant success story. It reflects the path that immigrants increasingly are taking after they first enter the country — legally or illegally. Her moves eventually landed Cadavid — now a U.S. citizen — in a suburban county, well ensconced in middle-class America.

The movement of the foreign-born after they arrive sheds light on a key issue in the national immigration dialogue: How quickly immigrants assimilate into American culture and progress from a transient population to one that pays taxes, achieves homeownership and becomes largely self-sufficient.

Traditionally, newcomers settled in urban enclaves teeming with immigrants who shared their language and culture. They didn't spread out much until their children grew up and moved away.

That's still the case in some urban areas.

However, a growing number of immigrants are settling in suburbia as soon as they arrive, adding diversity to once largely homogeneous areas — and sometimes triggering tension among residents who are jarred by the impact of immigrants on their neighborhoods.
Other immigrants are moving to places that haven't seen immigrants in almost 100 years, such as rural counties in the South and Midwest.

The newcomers' move to the suburbs is telling, analysts say. "A good portion of the movement to outer suburbs within a region reflects a movement up the (economic) ladder," says Audrey Singer, an immigration specialist at the Brookings Institution.

Today, many "immigrants in America are pre-assimilated," adds Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California. "They know a lot about America before they come, and many know English, also. … Economically, they're flourishing more rapidly now than they did at the turn of the (20th) century."

How quickly immigrants assimilate depends on what measure is used — from English-speaking skills and education to employment.

Homeownership is one of the most widely used characteristics of success. About 68% of immigrants who arrived in the 1970s are homeowners — equal to the rate of natives.
"Most people think of language and appearance as being assimilation," Myers says. "But we often lose track of the fact that immigrants are upwardly mobile economically and moving into homeownership at astounding rates."

Homeownership among Hispanic immigrants is about double that of low-income immigrants of the past, he says.

"The fear that immigrants are assimilating more slowly is largely a mirage based on the fact that we have more immigrants who have arrived recently and look unassimilated," Myers says. "Many things they have achieved exceed immigration in the old days."

"The ones who came in the '80s actually made faster progress than the ones who came in the '70s, but not as fast as the ones who came in the '60s," says Jeffrey Passel, demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center.

Progress varies depending on countries of origin and economic conditions in the USA at the time. "I don't know that there's a handy-dandy measure that's available," Passel says. "The point is, they're making progress."

About 12.5% of the population is foreign-born today, compared with just under 15% in the 1890s and early 1900s. The share is expected to surpass 15% in 2025 and reach 19% by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center.

Spreading out

More than 2% of the residents of Osceola County, where Cadavid lives, are foreign-born and moved from somewhere else in the United States from 2005 to 2006. It's one of the highest such rates in the nation, the Census Bureau says.

The places that have the highest move-in rates of foreign-born residents are suburban, from the city of Alexandria and Prince William County in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., to Henry and Gwinnett counties near Atlanta and Riverside County near Los Angeles.
Education levels were particularly high among immigrants who moved to some states, says Mark Mather, deputy director of domestic programs at the Population Reference Bureau. Three-quarters of the foreign-born who moved to Connecticut from another state from 2005 to 2006 had a bachelor's degree or higher. The state has major universities and financial centers that draw educated workers.

Moving — and moving up — are slices of the immigration story often lost in the furor over illegal residents, day laborers packing strip-mall parking lots and low-income families crowding apartments.

Immigrants typically make significant progress over time, says Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports limits on immigration. But even those who have been here for 20 years are more likely than natives to be poor, lack insurance or use welfare.

"One thing that makes the public most dissatisfied about immigrants is that they use a lot of services," Camarota says.

It took 60 years for poorly educated immigrants, such as the Italians who came at the turn of the last century, to reach income and educational parity with natives, he says. A century later, conditions have changed and comparisons are difficult, Camarota says. "This is a much bigger group" of immigrants.

Douglas Massey, sociologist at Princeton University and editor of New Faces in New Places: The Changing Geography of American Immigration, says immigrants are "more mobile and … moving into economic niches in the suburbs."

Hispanic immigrants have been fanning out across the nation for almost a decade. The Hispanic population of southwest Kansas, the heart of the meatpacking industry, has soared since the 1990s. Immigrants also arrived in rural parts of the South, working in North Carolina's furniture plants, and in Delaware's poultry processing industry.

Their arrivals in such rural areas sometimes have produced outcries for a crackdown on illegal immigration. "When you go into a place like North Carolina that hasn't had immigrants in 100 years and people speaking a different language plop down in the middle of their society, it's unnerving to a lot of people," Massey says.

Immigrants, including many who entered the country illegally, also have flocked to fast-growing suburbs to fill the need for construction workers, gardeners, maids and other service workers. Such areas also have attracted more affluent, highly educated immigrants who are engineers, doctors and lawyers.

"You have an industrial park with a bunch of programmers and engineers and a bunch of them are foreign-born," Massey says. "Then you have the service staff, and they're foreign-born, too."
Incomes vary widely Immigration is part of the fabric in New Jersey, where almost one-third of the residents were born outside the USA. Joe Gutierrez, a native of Lima, Peru, came to the USA in 1986 when he was 26. He was a university student in his homeland and worked in a bank's credit department. Here, he says, "I work in a restaurant in the beginning, like everybody."

Gutierrez worked 10 years in restaurants, eventually becoming a manager. Then he opened a delicatessen, sold it after seven years, got a real estate license and went back to college. He lives in Paterson.

Gutierrez, 47, got a business degree and attends graduate school at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He and his wife, Margaret, also Peruvian, have two sons. They're all U.S. citizens.
He says the backlash against immigration is "a shame because people like me came looking for a better life, a better job because in our country it's difficult. Unfortunately, there's discrimination. We don't speak English well, we don't know the customs here, but we are strong, and little by little we learn."

Emilio Fandino is executive director of The Hispanic Institute for Research and Development in Paramus, N.J., a school that teaches English as a second language. He says New Jersey's immigrants fit largely into two groups.

"You have the recently arrived who may be moving to these suburbs to obtain jobs," he says. And "you have the assimilated upper-middle class moving in to the suburbs because they're buying houses. … You're starting to see a wide range of socio-economic levels among the foreign-born."

Adds Fandino, a native of Argentina: "The concept of the ethnic ghetto is starting to disappear."
Tension has been rising in some areas where newcomers are settling. Monday, a new law cracking down on illegal immigrants took effect in Virginia's Prince William County. Police can check residency status even for people pulled over for minor infractions, and some county services may be denied.

Other communities are more welcoming. Riverside County, east of Los Angeles, is a haven for a growing Hispanic middle class.

"This sort of suburbanization is generally seen as a good thing," says Vanesa Estrada, sociologist at the University of California-Riverside and a fellow at RAND Corp., a think tank. "These sorts of patterns … imply that these immigrants are showing assimilation."

Little sign of a backlash

There has been little apparent tension between natives and immigrants here in Osceola County.
Maybe it's because crowding is not an issue in a 1,321-square-mile county that is still largely rural. Cows graze in open fields next to luxury resorts and townhomes.

Or maybe it's because the county has had a large Hispanic presence for decades. Puerto Ricans, who are not foreign-born, began settling here in the early 1980s and are the largest Hispanic group in central Florida. Many were drawn here by the warm weather.

Osceola is capitalizing on its proximity to Orlando and low cost of living. Its population (244,045) grew more than 40% from 2000 to 2006. The county is more than 38% Hispanic. In Kissimmee, Hispanics are the majority: 52%.

"I am unaware of any immigrant backlash," Richard Logue, program director of Catholic Charities' Immigration & Refugee Services, writes in an e-mail. But "with any community that experiences rapid growth, there are growing pains with … education, transportation and law enforcement."

Rogelio Rodriguez, born in the Dominican Republic, came to the USA in 2003 on a visitor's visa. He settled in Long Island, near friends and relatives. He married Madeline Vega-Rodriguez, born in this country to a Dominican mother. He now is a permanent resident.

Rogelio worked as a carpenter and obtained his real estate license. Madeline was an X-ray technician. They quit in 2006 and moved here. "We wanted to be self-employed as opposed to working for other people," says Madeline, 28. "There were more opportunities and … the (balmy) climate."

Rogelio, 27, and Madeline recently opened RG Printing, which does business printing and website design. Rogelio still sells real estate.

Cadavid first came to the USA with her husband and daughter and became a permanent resident thanks to her husband's legal status. Her son was born in this country and she became a citizen. After a divorce, she returned to Colombia. "I was upper-middle class," Cadavid says of her life in Colombia, where she was a partner in an interior design company.

Political turmoil caused her return to the USA in 1999, two kids in tow. She landed in Miami but found it too crowded. She knew no one in Kissimmee but found work at a supermarket here, rented a house, found better jobs and bought the house she shares with her son and a divorced cousin and her son. She works as a clerk at a distribution center and as supervisor for an office cleaning company.

"I am middle class now," she says. "I love this place."

Communities that seem welcoming to immigrants may see more of them as other jurisdictions pass laws denying jobs or driver's licenses to the undocumented. Some immigrants have left states such as Arizona and Oklahoma because of laws denying some public benefits to illegal immigrants.

"A lot of the political backlash against immigrants has been cultural," Myers says. "In some people's eyes, (immigrants) can never assimilate. The real story is that there is upward mobility among immigrants."

Contributing: Paul Overberg, USA TODAY, in McLean, Va.

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