Immigrants in 2010 Metropolitan America: A Decade of Change

Editor’s Note: In a keynote presentation to the National Immigrant Integration Conference in Seattle, Audrey Singer examines national and metropolitan immigration trends in the first decade of the 21st century.

In 2000, immigrants numbered 31.1 million and comprised 11.1 percent of the U.S. population. That year marked the end of a decade with the largest numerical increase in immigrants this country has ever experienced.

The first decade of the 21st century saw continued growth—with 8.8 million more immigrants living here in 2010 than 2000, a 28 percent increase. That growth, however, was slower than in the 1990s when the United States gained 11.3 million immigrants, a 57 percent increase between 1990 and 2000.

The growth of recent decades reverses and exceeds mid-century losses. Between 1930 and 1960, the number of immigrants in the U.S. dropped following slowed immigration from Europe. After major immigration reform passed in 1965 that opened the door to more immigrants from non-European countries, the foreign-born population began to grow again in the 1970s and 1980s before burgeoning in the 1990s. The growth in the 2000s represents something of a return to the upward trend established before the 1990s.

Much of the growth in the immigrant population during the 2000s happened prior to 2006, after which immigration slowed. However, the last year of the decade may suggest a rebound. Recent estimates show an increase of approximately one million immigrants between 2009 and 2010. Now numbering 40 million, the foreign-born population represents 12.9 percent of the nation’s population, after hovering close to 12.5 percent each year since 2005. In all, nine metropolitan areas experienced a doubling of their foreign-born populations in that decade alone.

The five U.S. metropolitan areas with the largest foreign-born populations—New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, and Houston—loosened their grip on the nation’s immigrants over the decade. They housed just 38 percent of immigrants in 2010, compared to 43 percent in 2000. Eighty-five percent of immigrants called the 100 largest metropolitan areas home in 2010 compared to 86 percent in 2000.

Nonetheless the number of immigrants living in the 100 largest metropolitan areas increased 27 percent in the 2000s. Metro areas experiencing the fastest growth rates were places that had relatively small immigrant populations. A swath of metro areas from Scranton stretching southwest to Indianapolis and Little Rock and sweeping east to encompass most of the Southeast and lower mid-Atlantic— including states and localities that have been flashpoints in the immigration debate—saw growth rates on the order of three times that of the 100-largest-metro-areas rate. These include Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville, and Indianapolis, all of which passed the 100,000 mark for total foreign-born population by 2010.

Twenty-one (21) metropolitan areas gained at least 100,000 immigrants between 2000 and 2010. Among those, Baltimore (72 percent), Orlando (71 percent), Las Vegas (71 percent), Atlanta (69 percent), and Riverside (52 percent) saw the fastest growth. New York, Houston, Miami, Washington, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Riverside saw the largest numerical gains with between 300,000 and 600,000 additional immigrants living there at the end of the decade.

Three decades ago, similar shares of immigrants lived in the cities and suburbs of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas (41 and 43 percent respectively). By 2000, 48 percent of all foreign born in the United States lived in suburbs of the 100 largest metropolitan areas while the percentage in cities had dropped to 38 percent. By 2010, the suburban share had climbed to 51 percent so that now a majority of immigrants in this country live in the suburbs of large metro areas. At the same time, 11 percent of immigrants live in smaller metropolitan areas, and almost 5 percent live in areas outside of metropolitan regions.

Within the largest metropolitan areas (i.e. excluding small metros and non-metro areas), 56 percent of immigrants lived in the suburbs in 2000; by 2010, that share had increased to 61 percent. In some metro areas, the share of immigrants living in the suburbs increased more dramatically. In the immigrant gateways of Houston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Austin, and Dallas-Fort Worth, the share of immigrants living in the suburbs went up 10 percentage points between 2000 and 2010. 

Some metropolitan areas are more suburbanized than others, and immigrants’ settlement patterns reflect that broader trend. The metro areas with the highest shares of their immigrants living in the suburbs in 2010 have high rates of suburbanization generally. In the Atlanta metro area, for example, 95 percent of immigrants live in the suburbs; so do 92 percent of all residents.

Some metro areas, however, stand out for their suburbanization of immigrants. In Modesto, CA, for example, 72 percent of immigrants live in the suburbs compared to 61 percent of the total metro population. Likewise, 24 percent of El Paso’s immigrants live in the suburbs while 19 percent of the overall metro population does. In total, in 14 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas immigrants are more suburbanized than the total population.

On the contrary, in 78 of the 100 largest metro areas, immigrants are less likely to be suburbanized than the overall population. In Nashville, for example, one-third of immigrants live in the suburbs compared to 59 percent of all residents. And in Charlotte, 38 percent of immigrants live in the suburbs compared to 58 percent of all residents. Overall, 69 percent of the population living in the largest metro areas are suburban residents compared to 61 percent of immigrants.

Immigrants living in the United States in 2010 were more likely to have been in this country for a decade or more compared to those living here in 2000. The slowing of immigration in the 2000s renders a smaller proportion of U.S. immigrants as recent arrivals. Immigrants in the United States in 2010 were more likely (65 percent) to have been in this country for a decade or more than immigrants living here in 2000 (58 percent).

The longer tenure of present-day immigrants is reflected in their naturalization rates. In general, the longer immigrants live in the United States, the more likely they are to be eligible for, and apply for, U.S. citizenship. Thus, in 2010, 44 percent of the foreign-born population was a U.S. citizen, compared to 40 percent in 2000.

Other characteristics of the foreign-born have also changed as a result of recent flows. While immigrants’ regions of birth shifted somewhat over the decade, Mexico remained the birthplace of the largest number of immigrants in this country by far (11.7 million), rising by 2.5 million in the 2000s. Nevertheless, the proportion of immigrants from Mexico was virtually the same at the end of the decade as it was at the beginning, about 29 percent. Those from other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean comprised a slightly higher share (24 percent) of immigrants in 2010 than in 2000 (22 percent).

The older European immigrant population registered the largest drop in its share of U.S. foreign born, from 16 percent in 2000 to 12 percent in 2010, amid a net loss of almost 100,000 immigrants. Though relatively small in number (1.6 million), immigrants born in Africa were the fastest-growing group over the decade, increasing in number by 83 percent and from just under 3 percent to 4 percent of U.S. immigrants. Asians grew 37 percent between 2000 and 2010, increasing their share of the immigrant population from 26 to 28. The addition of over 3 million Asian born represents just over one-third of the total increase in the immigrant population over the decade.

Immigrants living in the United States in 2010 are more educated than those here in 2000. In 2010, 27 percent of immigrants had a bachelor’s degree or higher, whereas 24 percent did in 2000. Likewise, 32 percent of the foreign-born population in 2010 had not completed high school, compared to 33 percent in 2000.

Not surprisingly, the Great Recession increased poverty rates among immigrants and natives alike. Poverty rates among immigrants went up slightly over the decade, from 17.9 percent in 2000 to 18.8 percent in 2010. Among natives, poverty increased more, from 11.7 percent in 2000 to 14.8 percent in 2010.

The first decade of the 21st century witnessed sustained—but slowed—growth in the foreign-born population in the United States. Immigrants continued to disperse to new areas of settlement across the country, with those from Latin America, Asia, and Africa increasing their share of the immigrant population.

In addition to moving to metro areas with little history of immigration, immigrants have increasingly settled in suburbs over cities. Job growth in the suburbs, affordable housing, good schools, and safe neighborhoods have attracted immigrants and natives alike to suburban areas. As a result, immigrant enclaves in central cities no longer dominate as the landing pad for new immigrants. Rather, newcomers often settle directly in the suburbs, joining family and friends there. The outcome is increased racial, ethnic, and linguistic diversity in the suburbs. Some places are embracing this phenomenon; others are resisting it and deflecting immigrants through punitive legislation.

The context for immigration has changed considerably since 2000. Economically, times were good at the beginning of the decade, and immigrants, for the most part, were viewed as assets to our labor force and society. Today, amid economic distress, unemployment, and shrinking public coffers, immigrants are more likely to be viewed as a drain on resources and as competitors for jobs. This is especially the case in places unaccustomed to or unprepared for new inflows of foreigners. On the other hand, in established immigrant gateways like New York or Chicago, or in places that want to attract immigrants to stem population loss—such as Detroit or Cleveland—immigrants are more likely to be welcomed.

Given an acrimonious Congress, the emotional nature of the immigration issue—especially in tough economic times—and the looming presidential campaign season, federal immigration legislation seems an unlikely prospect in the near future. In the meantime, a patchwork of state and local approaches will continue to address the benefits and challenges that confront people where they live, where they govern, and where budgets are made.