Immigration, once concentrated in traditional gateways like New York, Chicago and San Francisco and then later in Miami, Los Angeles and Houston, has gone nationwide.
Broad changes in the U.S. economy — increasing jobs in the service sector, relocations and declines in manufacturing and the industrialization of agriculture –have remapped the location of economic opportunity in America.
Responding to these changes, people and business moved out from cities to suburbs and to new regions, particularly to the South.
Immigrants were no exception.
Many landed in high-growth places with plenty of jobs in construction and landscaping, in high-tech occupations, in agriculture and poultry processing, in health care and in myriad service sector jobs.
But quite a lot of these high-growth centers — city, suburban and rural — had little experience of immigration. The pace of change has had far-reaching effects on neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and hospitals. Many local governments and institutions have been startled and are not sure how to respond.
Alabama, like its neighbors Tennessee and Georgia, has historically had very low levels of immigration. At the turn of the 20th century, for example, 15,000 immigrants lived in the state, making up less than one percent of the total state population. In 1990, the number of immigrants counted nearly 45,000 — still only about 1 percent of the total.
Immigration picked up pace across the country during the 1990s, and by 2000, Alabama’s immigrant population had doubled to approximately 90,000 or 2 percent of the population.
The most recent census estimates for 2007 put the state’s immigrant population of approximately 137,000 or 3 percent of the total, a growth rate of 56 percent since 2000.
Alabama’s surprising doubling of the foreign-born population during the 1990s somewhat pales in comparison to North Carolina, Georgia or Nevada, which more than tripled in size.
Certainly, Alabama’s absolute number of immigrants is small relative to states with long histories of immigration such as California, Texas and Florida. Nonetheless, Alabama ranks fifth in the rate of immigrant growth among all states this decade and, perhaps even more importantly, it ranks third behind North Dakota and Kentucky in its proportion of immigrants who arrived in the United States since 2000.
State level statistics, however, do not fully address what is happening in Alabama localities like Birmingham, Huntsville, Mobile and Albertville. Swift changes in these areas are evident in the workforce, schools, commercial corridors and neighborhoods and require adjustments from newcomers and long-established residents alike.
These may not be changes that feel welcome or warranted from the point of view of long-term residents. Day labor sites, overcrowding in homes and schools, unlicensed drivers, and the use of non-English languages are causing apprehension in many new destination areas. And these Alabama jurisdictions are not alone. Different approaches to new waves of immigration are being tested across the country.
While there is no consensus or an established set of policies for managing immigration locally, the source of the discomfort is the same. Local officials are frustrated with the inability of the federal government to control the nation’s borders, creating concerns about the presence of illegal immigrants and the public costs of hosting them.
While the country anticipates federal immigration reform, localities experiencing significant growth and change in their populations can begin a public dialogue that focuses on both the positives and the negatives of immigration, from all sides of the issue.
It is important that local leaders — elected officials, community and faith-based leaders, school officials and others — participate in this discussion as they set the tone and can shape the process as immigrants and established residents get to know each other, find commonalities and mutually address areas of tension.
In this way, local leaders can more effectively take advantage of the opportunities immigrants bring and address the pressures and anxieties their presence exerts.