Second Immigration Wave Lifts Diversity to Record High

Greg Toppo and Paul Overberg , USA Today, October 21, 2014

From a distance, the small group of Haitian immigrants at the public library looks like a prayer meeting or political gathering. Dressed colorfully but comfortably, the women speak in heavily accented English and sit every day for hours around a small wooden table studying to be nurses.

The library sits at the heart of one of the most diverse counties in the USA. More than 50 languages are spoken in the public schools, and this is what more and more communities across America will look like soon–very soon.

Racial and ethnic diversity is spreading far beyond the coasts and into surprising places across the USA, rapidly changing how Americans live, learn, work and worship together–and even who our neighbors are.

Cities and towns far removed from traditional urban gateways such as New York, Miami, Chicago and San Francisco are rapidly becoming some of the most diverse places in America, an analysis of demographic data by USA TODAY shows.

Small metro areas such as Lumberton, N.C., and Yakima, Wash., and even remote towns and counties–such as Finney County, Kan., or Buena Vista County, Iowa–have seen a stunning surge in immigrants, making those places far more diverse.

The USA is experiencing a “great wave” of immigration–call it a “second great wave.” The first, which stretched from the 1880s to the 1920s, coincided with the opening of Ellis Island and the social and political transformation of the nation.

The people in this second wave, arriving roughly since 1970, are more likely to be middle-class and, because of improved transportation and technology, can assimilate more quickly.

The result: For the first time, the next person you meet in this country–at work, in the library, at a coffee shop or a movie ticket line–will probably be of a different race or ethnic group than you.

USA TODAY used Census data to calculate the chance that two random people are different by race or ethnicity and came up with a Diversity Index to place every county on a scale of 0 to 100. The nationwide USA TODAY Diversity Index hit 55 in 2010, up sharply from 20 in 1960 and 40 as recently as 1990. In South Orange, the index is 59.

This is just the beginning. Barring catastrophe or a door-slam on immigration, the Diversity Index is on track to top 70 by 2060, according to a USA TODAY analysis of population projections by ProximityOne of Alexandria, Va. That means there will be less than a 1-in-3 chance that the next person you meet will share your race or ethnicity, whatever it is: white, black, American Indian, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Hispanic.

As people from varying cultures and races come together or collide, local governments and other institutions deal with a host of new issues, from conflicts over spending and diverse hiring to violence in the streets and language barriers.

This month, health workers in Dallas going door-to-door at the 300-unit apartment complex that housed the first U.S. patient with Ebola had to translate leaflets about the disease into eight languages. Among the tenants, the complex’s owner said, were many refugees being resettled.

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Almost half of the Americans, 49%, polled by USA TODAY say the country will be “better off” as communities diversify, racing toward a point where no racial or ethnic group has a majority; 25% say the country would be “worse off.”

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Not every corner of the country is changing rapidly, or even in the same direction. Nearly 200 counties, or about 6%, saw their Diversity Index fall in the past decade.

For a glimpse of what the USA looked like in 1970 and still looks like in some places, drive around Idaho, South Dakota or Wisconsin. If you want to see what the USA might look like in 2040, when the Diversity Index is projected to reach 65, look at Denver, Albuquerque, Austin or Phoenix, which already have reached that level.

The changes are so widespread they have even reversed the trend in some places. Counties along the Texas border–notably El Paso–have become less diverse as Hispanics have grown to make up more than 90% of the population.

The second wave of immigration is putting its own stamp on the makeup of communities across the country.

Access to transportation and a wider geographical swath of jobs means immigrants are not just showing up in big coastal cities and staying for generations. They’re moving to “new destinations,” as demographer Jacob Vigdor calls these places–not just suburbs but rural parts of the South, Midwest and West.

The black American experience, forged early on by slavery that brought millions from Africa, also is diversifying. Almost 10% of blacks are new immigrants from Caribbean or African countries, especially Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Some must learn English as a second language and face other challenges typical of immigrants.

While this second wave brings tensions and battles over school districts, religion, public spaces, law enforcement and affordable housing, it also brings new energy: The immigrants have higher birth rates, ensuring a steady supply of workers for future generations. They bring new role models, new foods and traditions, new sports, a tremendous entrepreneurial energy and, perhaps most significantly, intact, religiously devout families that place a heavy emphasis on education.

In other words, true Americans.

“We should be really happy that we have this large minority growth in the United States,” says Brookings Institution demographer

Frey says “new minorities”–Hispanics, Asians and multiracial Americans–are arriving as the USA’s white population is growing quite slowly and actually declining for the younger part of the population. “So it’s in fact a tonic,” he says. “We’re going to need this as we look ahead.”

With the new growth in diversity, Frey says, should come a new attitude about ethnic and racial minorities. “This is everybody’s business to make sure we have a productive multi-ethnic population in the United States,” he says. “And we should be so thankful that they’re here, because if we didn’t have the immigration and the fertility of these groups in the last 20 years, we would be in the same situation as Japan or a lot of European countries, which are facing a declining labor force and an aging population.”

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