Data Show Big Dip in Migration To the U.S.

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The number of immigrants coming to the United States slowed substantially in 2007, with the nation's foreign-born population growing by only 511,000, compared with about a million a year since 2000, according to Census figures released today.

In 14 states, the foreign-born population declined, including in such traditional immigrant gateways as New Jersey and Illinois and such newer destinations as Nebraska, South Dakota and Kansas.

The Washington area's immigrant population continued to grow, but much more slowly, increasing by 25,916, compared with average yearly increases of 37,091 since 2000.

Demographers said the data, which were part of a diverse release of social, economic and housing characteristics, reflected the economic slowdown.

"I think this shows that immigrants are keeping an eye on the economy when they make their decision on whether to come or where to live in the United States," said William H. Frey, a researcher with the Brookings Institution who analyzed the numbers. "When the economy appears to be in decline -- particularly for the kind of construction, retail and service jobs that immigrants are inclined to take -- they are less attracted to us."

Although the slowdown coincided with a step-up in federal enforcement actions against illegal immigrants and their employers, Frey cautioned against drawing too close a connection. He noted that the influx of Asian and African immigrants slowed by more than 60 percent, compared with 36 percent for Hispanic immigrants, who are statistically more likely to be in the country illegally.

Even with the slowdown, the number of foreign-born people in the United States reached a high of 38.1 million in 2007, accounting for 12.6 percent of the population.

The Census data also offered some unexpected insight into the driving habits of U.S. residents. Despite rising gas prices, growing concern about global warming and a proliferation of carpool-only lanes, the percentage of U.S. workers who drove to their jobs on their own remained at 76 percent from 2000 to 2007. During the same period, the share who carpooled dropped from 12 percent to 10 percent because of a slight increase in the number of those working from home.

The statistics were only slightly better for the Washington region. About 68 percent of area workers drove alone in 2007 -- up from 67 percent in 2000 -- and 11 percent carpooled. (Perhaps it's not surprising, then, that a Car Free Day sponsored by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments yesterday drew only 5,269 pledges not to use cars.)

Mark Mather, a researcher at the District-based Population Reference Bureau, said the national aversion to carpooling was probably due to the nationwide shift toward suburban counties where housing is cheaper but access to public transportation is more limited and jobs are further away.

"If you're living outside the Beltway, you really do need a car to get around," Mather said. "So even when there's an increase in gas prices, people just don't have a lot of other options."

But Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, predicted that this summer's price spike would cause a "sea change."

"Hitting that $4 at the pump was a psychological turning point," he said. "People are finally saying, 'It's time to change the kind of car I'm driving, or to take mass transit or to work from home.' . . . In the first seven months of this year, Americans have already driven 58 billion miles less compared to last year."

As in previous years, the Census data confirmed the Washington area's status as one of the wealthiest in the nation. Loudoun and Fairfax counties ranked first and second among all counties, with median household incomes of $107,207 and $105,241, respectively. Howard County ranked third, and seven other local counties were in the top 20.

The region also remains among the nation's most educated, with almost 38.3 percent of Arlington County adults over 25 holding advanced degrees, the highest share for any county in the nation.

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