Hispanics accounted for about half the growth in the U.S. population since 2000, according to a Census Bureau report to be released today that indicates the nation's largest minority group is increasing its presence even faster than in the previous decade.
In another contrast to the 1990s, births have overtaken immigration this decade as the largest source of Hispanic growth.
The new census figures paint a portrait of a Hispanic population dominated by the young: Half are under age 27. By comparison, half of non-Hispanic whites are over 40. That reflects a demographic divide that could have broad implications, experts say. And the speedy growth of the Hispanic population beyond the enclaves of the past could put their concerns into a more national spotlight.
"It's going to have profound effects on America. They are no longer regionally concentrated in places like California and New York," said Harry P. Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a California think tank. "There are more Hispanics in Cook County, Chicago, than in Arizona or Colorado or New Mexico. . . . The major significance is that it's a national presence."
In July 2004, Hispanics numbered 41.3 million out of a national population of nearly 293.7 million. They have the fastest growth rate among the nation's major racial and ethnic groups. In the 1990s, they accounted for 40 percent of the country's population increase. From 2000 to 2004, that figure grew to 49 percent.
The census report does not include local details, but previous figures have shown Hispanics accounting for about a third of the Washington area's growth from 2000 to 2003 and making up 9 percent of the regional population. The Brookings Institution has dubbed Washington an area of Hispanic "hyper-growth" and noted that the District has a higher share of prosperous Hispanics than the rest of the country.
Over the past two decades, the Hispanic population has swelled largely because of immigrants. Although immigration continues at a fast pace, the mix changed this decade, and new immigrants are now outnumbered by babies born in the United States and overwhelmingly likely to remain here. One in five children under 18 is Hispanic, according to the census figures.
"It's due to the settling of immigrants having children here," said Jeffrey S. Passel of the Pew Hispanic Institute. But, he said, "over half of Hispanic adults are immigrants. It takes time for that to play itself out, but by the time today's children grow up, that will have changed."
The future of those young people has become the topic of a debate among advocates and scholars, with some noting that Hispanics already have lower average education levels than other Americans and that their children could face a future at the bottom. Others contend that Hispanics will move up the ladder just as previous generations of immigrants have, citing the example of Italians who arrived here with little education.
Beatriz Otero, founder of CentroNia, a D.C.-based organization that sponsors early childhood education, a charter school and after-school programs, said bilingual education programs were not designed for today's Hispanic children who enroll in her programs knowing some English but not having complete command of it.
"The classic is the mom who immigrates here at 25 and had a 7-year-old. That 7-year-old went through the school system, had a baby at 19 and dropped out. Grandma may not speak English, mother has a mix, and what's the baby getting?" she said. "What we were designing 15 years ago in bilingual education programs, we are beginning to realize it's got to be a different design now. I'm not sure yet what that is."
Experts have predicted the rise of the Hispanic voting bloc for years, but it has not happened. The Census Bureau recently reported that 47 percent of Hispanic citizens voted in last year's presidential election, compared with 60 percent of blacks and 67 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Part of the reason might be that Hispanics are younger and poorer than other voters, factors that are linked to lower turnout. Hispanic voting power also is lessened because millions of them are illegal immigrants.
For Hispanics who do vote, political concerns will reflect the fact that they are more likely to be married and have children than other Americans and less likely to be in older age groups anxious about the future of Social Security, said Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey.
"They very much are going to be interested in children's issues and in schools and anything that involves the promise of a middle-class life to their children in the next generation," Frey said. "To many, what happens in their 65-plus years are very much on the back burner."
Although the Pew Hispanic Center recently reported that competition between new and established immigrants is one reason Hispanics have seen a two-year decline in wages, Rodolfo de la Garza, a political science professor at Columbia University, does not think that they will line up behind proposals to restrict new arrivals.
"Latinos may not be pro-immigration . . . but they don't want discrimination," he said.
Hispanic population growth has fed some local tensions near sites where day laborers gather and debates over whether government benefits should be available to illegal immigrants. But it has also helped spur a cultural change in which young people grow up in a more diverse world than their parents did.
"Interracial, interethnic dating isn't even a question," de la Garza said. "It's hard for people over 40 to really understand that. And people my age -- I'm 60 -- people were killed for that."