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Foreign-Born Citizens Down in South

May 24, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ While the foreign-born population in the United States soared during the 1990s, the percentage who were citizens declined in many states across America’s heartland and in the South.

The 2000 census data for 33 states offers the first detailed breakdown of the nation’s foreign-born population, which soared over the decade thanks to a wave of Hispanic immigration.

The figures come from answers given on the Census Bureau’s ``long form″ census packet, which asked only whether a person was a citizen. It did not ask about legal status of noncitizens and federal law requires that individual answers be kept confidential.

Still, a fear of governmental authority among some immigrants may have led people to ignore the citizenship process or to lie on their census form, which would cause data on the question to be understated, immigration experts say.

In the case of many newcomers, applying for citizenship simply held a lower priority on the to-do list than finding a job. New immigrants filled positions from meatpacking plants in Nebraska to textile mills in North Carolina.

``They want to be able to participate in the community. With citizenship comes voting rights and other privileges,″ said William Frey, a University of Michigan demographer.

``But that’s not the first thing on their agenda usually. Like U.S. citizens when they move to a new place, they want to find a job and get settled first,″ he said.

The situation has long existed in traditional immigrant gateways like Texas and Arizona, two of four states to receive census data on Friday. It is a fairly new issue in places like Grand Island, Neb.

There, Paulo Reynoso helps run an outreach center that offers programs promoting literacy and health education for new immigrants.

``They are here, helping the economy. Don’t you want a healthy community, and a population that can read?″ Reynoso said. In Nebraska, 68 percent of the foreign-born population were not citizens, up from 46 percent in 1990.

``They are here to stay, so it’s in everybody’s benefit to help them,″ Reynoso said.

Figures also were released Friday for New Mexico and Louisiana. Data for the rest of the country will be released by early June.

Among the findings on Friday:

_The foreign-born population in Texas stood at nearly 2.9 million in 2000, almost half of whom arrived during the 1990s.

_Arizona had one of the highest percentages of foreign-born residents who were not citizens: 70 percent in 2000, up from 61 percent a decade earlier.

States including Nebraska, North Dakota and North Carolina, which have relatively low immigrant populations compared to Texas and Arizona, still had some of the largest percentage increases in noncitizens. For example, in North Carolina, it increased from 57 percent to 74 percent during the decade.

_77 percent of New Mexico’s foreign-born population arrived from Latin America, one of the highest shares in the country.

While the census offers a glimpse of how things changed over the 1990s, other factors have swayed many immigrants since then.

Cecilia Munoz, a vice president with the Hispanic advocacy group, the National Council of La Raza, said citizenship applications in some cities are up since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Some apply out of patriotism, she said, while others feared they could be targets of an anti-foreign backlash after federal authorities questioned dozens of people of Middle Eastern descent after the attacks.

``There has been a real perception in immigrant communities that they have less rights after Sept. 11, that they are targeted as threats unfairly,″ said Joseph Berra, a lawyer with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Antonio.

Also, a federal law passed in December 2000, which expired the next April, offered undocumented immigrants with relatives or job sponsors in America to apply for visas and pay a fine of $1,000 without leaving the company.

About 200,000 people did it, because without the dispensation, they must leave the country and apply from their own country in a process that can take years.

While not official data, Census Bureau estimates released in January that also take into account Immigration and Naturalization Service figures showed 8.7 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States in 2000, up nearly 5 million during the decade.


On the Net: Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov

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