Population Grows at Rapid Rate Across Region

Andy Johns, Chattanooga Times Free Press, August 7, 2008

The latest demographic estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show the Hispanic population in the tri-state region is growing almost 12 times faster than other groups.

According to 2007 population estimates released this morning, the Hispanic population of Hamilton County and the surrounding 20 counties has grown almost 60 percent since 2000, compared to 5 percent growth in non-Hispanic groups.

Gordon and Murray counties in Georgia lead the region, with Hispanic populations surging 131 percent in Murray and 116 percent in Gordon, census figures show. The Hispanic population has grown 86 percent in DeKalb County, Ala., and 80 percent in Georgia’s Catoosa County.

Hamilton County saw its Hispanic population grown 73 percent, figures show, while Bradley County’s grew 72 percent.

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Mexicans and Guatemalans make up the bulk of Hispanic immigrants in the Southeast, with sizable populations of other Central American nations and a relatively small number of South Americans, said Dr. Douglas C. Bachtel, a demographer with the University of Georgia. The immigrants leave their homelands in search of higher wages and more job opportunities, he said.

In addition to the jobs Ms. Jones mentioned, Dr. Bachtel said many immigrants find work in the retail industry as maids or waiters. Dalton, Ga., in particular, has many Hispanic immigrants who work at carpet mills, he said.

“If you don’t have those jobs, you aren’t necessarily going to get Hispanics,” Dr. Bachtel said.

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Ms. Jones said she had heard some estimates as high as 15,000 Hispanics in the Chattanooga metro area—about 50 percent more than the Census Bureau’s estimate of nearly 9,600.

School enrollment figures often give a better idea about an area’s population and in Hamilton County shows significant Hispanic growth, as well, Dr. Bachtel said.

In the 2006-2007 school year, 1,757 Hispanic students were enrolled in Hamilton County, making up 4.1 percent of the total student body, school figures show. School administrators estimate the number grew to about 5 percent during the 2007-2008 school year.

Those numbers indicate a sharp growth from the 1999-2000 school year when there were 429 Hispanic students—1 percent of the total—enrolled in county schools, and even larger growth compared to 1995-1996 statistics, when Hispanics made up 0.6 percent of the system’s students.

Similarly, Erlanger Health System has seen an increasing number of Hispanic patients, officials said. The hospital system admitted 4,168 Hispanic patients between October 2001 and September 2002, compared to 7,302 in the same period of 2006 and 2007, according to Erlanger spokeswoman Pat Charles.

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Other organizations and institutions are addressing the Hispanic growth as well, according to Ms. Jones.

“Nearly everywhere you go the signs are bilingual,” she said. “It’s more visible than it was five years ago.”

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