How Immigrants Forestall Death of More Than 1 in 3 U.S. Counties

Milagros Rodriguez, who is originally from the Dominican Republic, works with a customer at her salon, the Woodside Beauty Salon, in the Queens borough of New York, Thursday, June 14, 2012. According to a report released Thursday by the Fiscal Policy Institute, 18 percent of small business owners in the U.S. are immigrants. That's an increase from 1990, when immigrants made up 12 percent of small business owners. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig) (National Journal)

America hasn't seen such dismal census numbers on population shifts since the days of newsreels, dust bowls, and the mother of all depressions.

One in three U.S. counties is dying, based on a decline in population.

When it comes to the era of the Great Recession, however, were it not for immigrants streaming into major American cities in embattled Detroit, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, many more counties would be shrinking, as shown in Census Bureau figures released Thursday. Specifically, deaths exceeded births in 1,135 of 3,143 U.S. counties in 2012, up from 880 in 2009.

That figure might have been even higher, had certain people not seen opportunity in areas of decay. For instance, The New York Times reports that more people moved to the Bronx, perhaps the most blighted of boroughs with a population of 1.4 million, than left, according to city data.

That's explained by migratory tendencies and opportunities as well as by a decline in birth rate more dramatic among immigrants than whites.

"In a big metro area like New York, there's a lot of niches for people — there's always the upstairs/downstairs phenomenon," explained William Frey, chief demographer for the Brookings Institution, about types of jobs among socioeconomic classes of people. "But we're on our way to more-normal migration patterns. Normal in America is to move where the jobs are."

And jobs are not in economically distressed or underdeveloped areas.

Demographer Randy Capps is a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy. He agreed with Frey's assessment but also pointed to decline of certain communities that no longer attract migrants. Among areas he cited because of lack of development are the Mississippi Delta of eastern Arkansas (documented recently in a profile of the state's immigrants) and stricter immigration enforcement in Georgia.

"Rural areas are most effected" by both immigration and migration patterns, Capps said.

Alternately, driving some of the growth — or at least postponing natural decline of or exodus from counties — are risk takers, many of them newcomers.

Without immigrants, many metropolitan regions would have declined; beyond the obvious destinations, namely New York and Chicago (respectively the largest and third-largest), immigrants shored up Detroit, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis.

"Immigrants are innovators, entrepreneurs," said Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder at a recent immigration conference, according to an Associated Press report. "They're making things happen."

A July 2012 report by the Fiscal Policy Institute indicated that immigrants own 18 percent of small businesses in the U.S., up from 12 percent in 20 years.

Among other figures of interest from the census and AP reports:

  • The fastest-growing regions are tied to the oil and gas boom in the Great Plains.
  • 5 major U.S. cities eclipsed certain million milestones in growth, between 2011 and 2012: Los Angeles, surpassing 13 million; Philadelphia, exceeding 6 million; Las Vegas, growing past 2 million; and Grand Rapids, Mich., which broke 1 million.
  • 9 metro regions have populations exceeding 5 million residents.
  • 52 U.S. cities now have at least 1 million residents.
  • New York remains the largest U.S. city, with a population on July 1 of 19.8 million.
  • Overall, the U.S. population grew just 0.75 percent, the lowest growth since 1937, AP reports. On July 1, the national population was 314 million, making the U.S. the world's third-most-populous nation, far behind China (1.35 billion) and India (1.21 billion).
  • 11 of the nation's 50 fastest-growing counties are in Texas.
  • Two Florida counties (Bradford and Hendry) are in fastest decline, followed by a pair in Alabama (Macon and Perry).