Over the past decade, the story of population growth in the United States was defined largely by the story of Latinos emerging as the nation’s largest minority.
They surpassed African-Americans for that distinction, by accounting for 56 percent of America’s growth from 2000 to 2010. They now number more than 50 million. Put another way, 1 in every 6 U.S. residents is Latino.
Hispanics remain heavily concentrated in states such as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and New York. The majority reside in just three of those states — California, Texas and Florida.
Yet the 2010 count showed that Hispanics have begun to fully spread across the nation.
Their populations increased in virtually every state. And on the local level, Hispanics increased their populations in 2,962 of America’s 3,142 counties. They declined in number in 108 counties.
The greatest gains occurred in the South and Midwest, which have had traditionally low Hispanic populations, but have attracted Hispanics with lower costs of living and jobs in agriculture.
“Throughout the decade, we were tracking the faster-than-average growth in what have been called the new settlement areas in the Southeast and Midwest. For the most part, the census numbers not only confirmed that, but said we had underestimated the growth in these new areas,” says Jeff Passel, chief demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center.
Southern states posted the top five fastest growth rates, led by South Carolina and followed by Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas.
In Alabama, the Hispanic population grew 145 percent. About 186,000 Hispanics now live in the state, compared with roughly 76,000 in 2000, drawn by low-wage jobs at food-processing facilities and three large automobile plants.
The majority of Hispanics live in the Birmingham area, which is in Shelby County, where the Latino population grew by nearly 300 percent.
“A lot of the growth has been because of the housing boom and the construction jobs, poultry plants and the Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai plants,” says Jeremy Love of the advocacy group Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama.
The surges in Alabama and other Southern states have stirred hostility. Alabama and Georgia have passed laws cracking down on illegal immigration. Alabama’s new law, which is being challenged in federal court (as is Georgia’s new law), grants broad authority to law enforcement to detain people suspected of being in the U.S. illegally. The law also requires public schools to report the citizenship status of their students, as well as their parents, to authorities.
“A lot of people, from what I’ve seen, are uncomfortable with the growth,” Love says. “They see the rising unemployment rate and think Hispanics are taking their job opportunities. There is also a misconception that illegal immigrants are receiving food stamps or Medicare or Medicaid, and that’s not true.”
In the Midwest, Hispanic arrivals have propped up declining or stagnating populations.
In Iowa, for instance, the population of non-Hispanics increased less than 2 percent while the Latino population mushroomed by nearly 84 percent, gaining more than 151,000. Hispanics make up only 5 percent of Iowa’s population of 3 million, but their growth — amid a population loss among whites — has become critical to the state’s agribusiness economy.
In several Iowa counties — including Humboldt, which lost more than 5 percent of its overall population — the Hispanic population shot up more than 250 percent.
In the Midwest and elsewhere, Hispanic population growth coincided with declines in non-Hispanic populations, particularly among whites. An analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center found the trend among many midsize and large counties with already significant Hispanic populations.
For instance, Cook County in Illinois, which includes Chicago, gained 173,022 Hispanics but lost 355,088 non-Hispanics. Wayne County in Michigan, which includes Detroit, gained 18,053 Hispanics and lost 258,631 non-Hispanics. Dallas County in Texas gained 243,211 Hispanics and lost 93,971 non-Hispanics. And Los Angeles County gained 445,676 Hispanics and lost 146,409 non-Hispanics.
The Pew Hispanic Center also found that Hispanic growth fundamentally changed the makeup of small and midsize counties across the country. Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, who conducted the analysis, said he found more than 200 counties of at least 50,000 people in which the share of Hispanics doubled.
“Their rapid growth was fast enough to significantly change the composition of those counties,” Lopez says. “These counties went from having small minority populations to large minority populations, or large minorities became the majority.”