Forget Miami, Los Angeles and New York--America's newest immigrant capitals are the country's recent boom towns.
Top of the list: Cape Coral-Fort Myers, Fla., with a 122% increase in its foreign-born population from 2000 to 2007, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of U.S. Census Bureau information. Also ranking high are the metro areas of Nashville, Tenn., (74% increase), Indianapolis (71%), Orlando, Fla., (64%) and Raleigh, N.C. (62%).
It makes sense. Like everyone else, immigrants are drawn to places with jobs. These towns offer a relatively low cost of living, compared with their big-city brethren and, in recent years, ample opportunities for work in various fields. Raleigh is a hub of North Carolina's "Research Triangle," and in 2007, about 15% of its working immigrant population worked in professional, scientific and administrative occupations, according to the Census Bureau. Orlando, a major tourist destination, is a hub for service-sector jobs.
Who are these immigrants? Nationwide, they're overwhelmingly Latino. About 54% of the nation's 38 million foreign-born residents hail from Latin America and the Caribbean, according to government estimates. The next largest group, from Asia, accounts for about 27% of the nation's immigrant population. These figures do not account for the estimated 11.9 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
However, depending on the city, immigrant populations can vary widely. In Phoenix, more than 70% of the foreign-born population is from Latin America. In Columbus, Ohio, the largest immigrant group--about 40%--is from Asia. Nashville happens to be home to one of the largest Kurdish populations in the country.
Just as it's easy to spot America's boom towns by looking at where immigrant growth has increased the most, the places where the bubble has burst are also instantly recognizable. Case in point: Cape Coral, Fla., where 28% of the metro area's working immigrant community worked in construction-related jobs in 2007. Now that the Real Estate party's over, Cape Coral-Fort Myers is one of the worst places to ride out the economic storm.
The situation is much the same in Las Vegas, which ranks No. 4 on our list. It has been one of the fastest-growing cities in America in terms of gross domestic product (67% increase from 2001 to 2006) and foreign-born population (65% increase from 2001 to 2007). Census Bureau data show 58% of Sin City's working immigrants held vulnerable construction or service-sector jobs.
What happens to immigration during a downturn? Either it slows, or in some cases--depending on economic situations in their countries of origin--immigrants in the U.S. may return to their home countries. While the overall number of new arrivals to the U.S. has increased every year since 2003, experts say they're seeing a decline in the rate of growth for immigration, something that's likely to continue with a recession.
Oddly, that could be a good thing for the overall U.S. economy. With national unemployment already at 6.1%, a reduction in the potential labor force might provide some relief to communities hit particularly hard by the downturn.
"An outflow of immigrants, or a reduction in the inflow, could actually lessen the recessionary pressures," writes professor George Borjas, an expert on labor economics at Harvard University, in an e-mail.