Hispanic Population Booming In Middle America, Study Finds

March 26, 1998

UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Between 1990 and 1994, the United States population grew by 6 percent, according to Census Bureau information and estimates, but the U.S. Hispanic population grew by 28 percent -- almost five times as quickly.

The fastest Hispanic population growth occurred, however, not in the Southwest as one might expect, but in the nation's heartland and Sun Belt, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study shows.

"During that period, Hispanic people increased 29 percent in Georgia, 30 percent in Maryland, 31 percent in Nebraska, 32 percent in Iowa, 33 percent in Minnesota and 41 percent in Nevada," said Karen Johnson-Webb, a geography doctoral student at UNC-CH.

"In the past, Latinos traditionally have settled in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas and also in Florida and the New York area. Our new work is surprising and important, we feel, because it documents shifting migration patterns for these people and for our nation."

Johnson-Webb, also a map specialist at the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research, presented results of her team's study Thursday (March 26) at the Association of American Geographers' annual meeting in Boston. Report co-authors are Drs. James Johnston Jr., professor of geography at UNC-CH and Walter C. Farrell Jr. of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

They found that Hispanics began moving to the heartland to take advantage of the economic turnaround that has occurred in the 1990s following the devastating industrial slump of the 1970s and 1980s in that region. Hispanics have moved to the Sun Belt to find jobs in the boom years that began in the 1970s and continue today.

People of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry have migrated to areas such as north Georgia not to take advantage of welfare benefits, but rather to seek work, Johnson-Webb said. In some communities they do strain schools, public health clinics and other services, however.

"Over the past 15 years job growth has occurred not so much in the major metropolitan centers in the Northeast and Midwest, but in small to medium-sized metropolitan areas in the Sunbelt and Midwest and rural communities," she said. "The somewhat surprising thing is that that's where the highest percent change is in the Hispanic population. Like other groups, they are attracted to the jobs.

Contrary to what some people think, she said, most Hispanics flooding the heartland are not illegal immigrants but U.S. citizens relocating from the Southwest, Florida and New York.

"Many of the communities, such as the business community, have done welcoming things like putting together festivals and hiring or training staff to speak Spanish," Johnson-Webb said. "In some, however, there's been a backlash from people who say their quality of life was being adversely affected by the migration of Hispanics and other people of color to their state."

Most Hispanics are employed in manufacturing, construction, transportation and wholesale and retail jobs, she said. Often they take jobs no one else wants.

Last year, Johnson-Webb presented a study showing Hispanics settling in North Carolina in record numbers. More than half already were U.S. citizens, and many had begun moving to urban areas instead of concentrating as in the past near military bases and in migrant farm camps.

Before 1965, the U.S. employed a quota that favored European immigrants over Hispanics and people from other continents.

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Note: Johnson-Webb can be reached by calling (617) 973-4841 or through the society's media room at the Boston Marriott Copley Place Hotel, (617) 236-5800, ext. 6915.

Contact: David Williamson

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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