FOR GENERATIONS, IMMIGRANTS FOLLOWED A predictable path as they arrived in the United States, living first in densely populated urban neighborhoods and eventually moving to the outlying areas. A new study on immigration patterns, though, shows that this tradition is shifting as more immigrants bypass the cities to settle in the suburbs.
A study called “The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways,” released in February by the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan public policy research organization, confirmed what many builders see every day. The immigrant population in the United States is exploding, particularly in fast-growing metro areas where housing booms have created construction jobs. According to U.S. Census data, the U.S. foreign-born population grew 57.4 percent in the 1990s. By the year 2000, nearly a third of America's immigrants lived outside the six established settlement states—California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas.
“The fact that there are more immigrants in the suburbs now is an important finding,” says Audrey Singer, an immigration expert and author of the study. “That's a new thing. Housing is playing a part in this. The housing opportunities in the suburbs are what immigrants want —more affordable, in school districts they want to be in, close to amenities that everyone wants. It makes sense.”
The study's findings are as significant for home builders as they are for policy makers, particularly those in the nation's growth markets, says NAHB economist Michael Carliner. While immigrants are unlikely to buy homes until they have permanent resident status in the United States, he says, they have become critical to the labor supply.
“We never could have met the demand for new homes without immigrants,” Carliner says. “One of the things I have found very striking is we not only have someone who can push a wheelbarrow, but the quality of the work and work ethic is very favorable. They are important to the future of the industry.”
In studying where immigrants are settling, Singer identified six “gateways” characterized by their history of attracting foreign-born residents. Former gateways, such as Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, drew immigrants in the early years of the 20th century, but don't anymore. Continuous gateways, such as New York and Chicago, have maintained the same levels of immigrant residents for a century or more.
Post–World War II gateways, most notably Miami, have drawn many of their foreign-born residents in the last 50 years. Emerging gateways, such as Atlanta, Las Vegas, and Orlando, Fla., have experienced fast immigrant growth in the last two decades.
Re-emerging gateways, including Denver, Seattle, and Tampa, Fla., had strong immigrant populations in the early 1900s that dropped off mid-century but are becoming re-established as immigrant destinations. Areas such as Salt Lake City and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., were identified as pre-emerging gateways in which the bulk of the foreign-born residents arrived in the 1990s.
In the emerging and pre-emerging gateway communities, the immigrant population has skyrocketed. In Atlanta, for example, the overall population roughly doubled between 1980 and 2000, but its foreign-born population burgeoned from 46,000 to 423,000—an increase of more than 800 percent—with the immigrants living “almost exclusively” in the suburbs, Singer says.
This trend has lead to a growing need for established services—such as English classes, health care, public transportation, and job assistance—to help the newcomers integrate into the community.
“These workers come with implications, and not just for safety on the job,” Singer says. “Depending on the resources and willingness of the community, the response can be fast, slow, or anything in between. The idea is to at least start thinking about how to make it easier for everyone.”