Immigrants making a landmark shift

Wednesday, March 17, 2010 - 10:47am

Los Angeles – US immigrant populations are spreading out, a study released Monday found.

New immigrants and their US-born descendants are expected to grow by 117 million by 2050, making up 82 percent of the US population growth over that period, and will “have important implications for housing demand at a time when aging baby boomers are expected to retire and leave the housing market,” the study predicts.

New immigrants who once flocked to the large "gateway" cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Chicago are now heading for smaller metropolitan areas like Detroit and Minneapolis, Colorado Springs, Colo., Sarasota, Fla., and El Paso, Tex., according to the the study, released by the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southen California. The census data used for the study didn't take into account respondents' legal status.

“Every city in the US is getting a sizable immigration population,” said Gary Painter, director of research at the Lusk Center and co-author of the study, in a phone interview. “We are no longer a country where immigration is largely confined to just a few places.”

The typical immigrant seen in these new places is likely to have been in the US fewer than 10 years, he says, whereas the typical immigrant in a larger city has likely been here much longer. The implication of this is that new immigrants probably have less English language skills, are less likely to be integrated, and are less likely to own a home.

“We found that the immigrant communities in these smaller metro areas are much less developed," Mr. Painter said. "The questions we need to ask ourselves are 'what sorts of policies do we want to pursue because of this?' ”

The study, “Immigrants and Housing Markets in Mid-Size Metropolitan Areas” by Painter and co-author Zhou Yu, an assistant professor at the University of Utah, looked at census data from 2000 to 2005 in 60 cities with housing priced lower than in the major gateway cities. Over those five years, these mid-size areas showed an average 27 percent rise in new immigrant population at the same time that more traditional gateways registered a 6 percent decline.

Painter and Yu found that immigrants continue to have lower homeownership rates than native-born Americans having the same income and education levels. "Many of these immigrants may be waiting for other family members to join them before setting down more permanent roots," explained Painter, who plans future research into the disparity in homeownership rates.

Immigration watchers draw various lessons from the findings.

"Newly arriving immigrants are likely to settle where there are job opportunities and affordable places to live,â€

Others point to wider trends. “I’m not sure how much this says about immigration, per se, that immigrants are avoiding – like the rest of us – large cities which are clogged with employment, the cost of living is higher, taxes are higher, and the quality of life is deteriorating,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C.

Some immigrants' rights groups say the move to smaller cities makes sense.

“Given the negative attitudes towards immigrants, the incessant persecution by immigration agents, and the lack of jobs," says Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, “immigrants may believe that smaller cities offer all the right options: a place to live unnoticed, a somewhat welcoming environment, and less competition for lower-paying jobs.”

Still others question whether it’s too soon to draw too many conclusions because of the heated political climate, the recent downturn in the economy, and the coming 2010 census.

“This study is only looking at home ownership and may be overtaken by the next census,” says Karthick Ramakrishnan, who studies immigration patterns and demographics at the University of California, Riverside. “There are many variables that need to be examined because of the push and pull over immigrants – some declaring that they drag the economy down and others saying it props them up.”