America's Immigrants Are Moving to the Suburbs

They're drawn there for the same reasons the rest of us are--affordability, jobs, and schools.

America's immigrant population is increasingly dispersed and more likely to live in suburban areas than just a decade ago. The changes are part of a long-term trend that experts predict could, when coupled with President Obama's recent executive action, dramatically reshape communities around the United States.

In 2000, more than half of immigrants lived in the suburbs of the nation's largest metros. That number is now up to 61 percent, as more immigrants migrate to suburban communities instead of urban centers, according to census data from 2000-13 analyzed by the Brookings Institution.

"Immigrants are going for the same thing that everybody else is—an affordable place to live, good schools, safety, closeness to jobs, as jobs have also moved out to the suburbs. It's made it more practical for people to live farther out," says Jill Wilson, a senior research analyst at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "They're following patterns of the larger population."

Immigrants are still more likely to live in an urban or suburban area than the average American, Wilson says, but the shift to the suburbs from cities over the past decade is notable.

Decades of growth in immigrant-friendly cities like Chicago and Los Angeles has finally plateaued—and while those and other cities still have large immigrant populations, there is literally more room for growth in the suburbs.

Washington, D.C. and Atlanta are top cities in terms of the growth of their proportionate foreign-born populations, and both saw almost all of that growth in the suburbs. That's partly because of how the Census Bureau and the White House Office of Management and Budget define individual metro areas.

The D.C. metro area, for example, includes 22 counties, extending from Reston and Fairfax in Virginia through Frederick County, Md., and including a small part of West Virginia. Atlanta's metro area spans 25 counties and is about the size of Massachusetts. Both metro areas have a fairly small urban center, so suburban growth naturally outshines any relative growth in the urban core.

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Even so, Wilson says the fact that nine major cities saw all of their foreign-born growth in the suburbs is a clear trend. Without that growth, some of those metro areas would have even seen their foreign-born population decline.

Additionally, nine cities saw no statistically significant urban growth, including Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and Atlanta.

Foreign-Born Population Growth in Primary Cities and Suburbs, 2000-2013 (Brookings Institution)

The move to suburbs is partly explained by the fact that recent immigrants—like those before them—tend to settle where the jobs are.

"It's not just suburbanization. It's following the general economic trends," says Randy Capps, the research director for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute. "It's also very regional. Texas is totally booming, so there's huge growth in the number of immigrants in the Texas metro areas."

Houston is one of the fastest growing metro areas in the country and is one of the few cities thriving postrecession, so it's naturally a magnet for newcomers, foreigners included. Its metro area ranks 17th for its share of foreign-born growth. And its immigrant population has grown about 60 percent since 2000, with 1.4 million foreign-born residents accounting for almost a quarter of the overall population. It's one of only three cities in the top 25 growth cities whose foreign-born populations break the 1 million mark (the others are Miami and Washington).

The cities with the most new growth since 2000 tend to be smaller, post-industrial towns where the overall immigration population is small, so even a relatively small infusion of newcomers can increase the base dramatically. A number of midsized metro areas have seen significant growth in the share of their immigrant populations—including those surrounding Bridgeport, Conn.; Worcester, Mass.; and Scranton, Pa.

And for many smaller northeastern and Midwestern cities, an influx of immigrants has helped reverse the economic effects of an aging population.

"It's sort of regrowth in some of what you might call old factory towns in New England, Capps said. "There has been some regrowth, some of it in manufacturing, some of it's in services. But there are a number of smaller cities in New England that are very interesting that have had a rebirth with recent immigrant populations."

The Southeast saw a larger influx of migration before the recession, thanks to the housing boom and available construction jobs. After the recession, the Northeast saw more growth in available low-wage service and hospitality jobs, which Capps says "will continue to definitely be employment magnets for immigrants" across the country.

As will construction jobs. "To the extent that the housing sector, in particular, rebounds, that's going to bring immigrants back into the labor force," Capps says. "People are going to move where the construction jobs are, and those jobs are highly mobile, they're very cyclical, they're very responsive to economic conditions."