Correction to This Article
An Aug. 21 article about immigration incorrectly said that Hispanics make up 48 percent of Phoenix's population, up from 34 percent five years ago. Hispanics constitute 41.8 percent of the city's population.

Changing Face of Western Cities

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By Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

Anushka Figueroa recently decided to make a change. She gave up her life in California's Silicon Valley and headed to Phoenix to work in marketing. The 37-year-old, who is originally from Puerto Rico, said she was searching for a better quality of life.

Her new home, she says, offers all the benefits that California did when her family moved there in the '70s. "California became too expensive," she said, "and Phoenix has advanced dramatically. It is the best decision I have ever made, and I would not go back."

An influx of Hispanics such as Figueroa has reshaped many urban areas' demographics; demographers say white people soon will be a minority in 35 of the country's 50 largest cities.

An analysis of census data released last week has shown that the white non-Hispanic population in another three of America's 50 largest cities has become a minority. In Phoenix, Tucson and Denver, the white population has recently fallen below 50 percent, according to William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution.

He predicts that another four cities will soon follow. Whites will become a minority in Arlington, Tex.; Charlotte; and Las Vegas within two years and in Austin within four years, he said.

Although these changes were once driven by "white flight," Frey said, something else contributed in the cities that most recently reached the tipping point. While they were still losing some whites, the more dramatic shift was the increase in Hispanics, some of whom were moving from California and elsewhere in the United States in search of a better -- and more affordable -- life.

Figueroa is part of a Hispanic population in Phoenix that has increased from 34 percent of the population to 48 percent in just five years.

"For years, Phoenix has been a retirement magnet, but now the big gain is immigration and secondary migration from California," Frey said. "Phoenix is still West but more affordable. All three cities are influenced by the exodus from California, and Hispanics are part of that."

He said Phoenix and Denver were "new-West cities" where economic change and new industries had created jobs.

Harry Garewal, president of the Arizona Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said part of the explanation for the growth in the Hispanic population is the area's "very robust economy."

Speaking from his Phoenix office, he said growth has created a greater demand for labor, particularly in construction. He said Arizona has 35,000 Hispanic-owned businesses, adding that the "Hispanic population in the state of Arizona have $26 billion in buying power." The local white population, he said, has benefited from a Hispanic-driven boost to the economy.

The demographic shift has social as well as economic consequences. Schools have to cope with more children who don't natively speak English, and politicians have to accept that their constituencies have changed.

"They will wake up one morning, and it will be a different city," Frey said.

The policymakers in Phoenix, Tucson and Denver could soon face issues similar to California's. Frey gave the example of Orange County. In 1996, after the population had become half Hispanic, Republican Robert K. Dornan was nudged out of the House seat he had held for 12 years by Democrat Loretta Sanchez. When he took her on again, Dornan tried to pitch himself as the "real Latino."

Lorraine Lee, an executive of the Tucson service organization Chicanos por la Causa Inc., said the demographic shift creates a new reality not only for politicians but also for the private sector.

"I think they realize we are here and that they need to take us into consideration," she said. "But to what extent will they go to address our needs?"

She said the huge increase in the Hispanic population is natural and should not cause alarm. "I think the people are drifting towards those communities that are more receptive to families, more receptive to diversity, and don't have populations that all fit into a box."

But Tucson has also suffered tension. Lee pointed to the rise of the Minuteman Project -- a group in the United States that has worked for the past year to deter illegal crossings from Mexico. "One thing that has changed is the overt demonstration of racism," she said. "The element itself is very small but can be intimidating."

But it is unlikely to stop the trend. James P. Allen, a professor of geography at California State University at Northridge, said this is a trend that will not stop in the West. He foresees a time when the 50 largest cities all will have whites in the minority.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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