Urban Wire Mapping the rapid growth of immigrant America
Julia Gelatt, Devlin Hanson
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Immigrants have grown rapidly as a share of the US population from 7.9 percent in 1990 to 12.9 percent in 2010, but this growth has not been evenly spread across the country. 

While many traditional immigrant destinations such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles continue to see increasing shares of immigrants, much of the recent growth has occurred in areas with formerly low shares of immigrants, such as metropolitan areas in the Southeast and Northwest or in the suburbs.

Many of these communities lack the infrastructure to serve immigrants’ language and other needs, presenting challenges for local governments, service providers, and immigrant families alike.

To explore the changing residence patterns of immigrants in the United States, this Urban Institute map shows the share of immigrants by neighborhood (census tract) across the United States for 1990, 2000, and 2010. The map highlights local areas where communities have had to work hardest to accommodate new immigrant inflows.

Rural versus metropolitan growth

At first glance, it appears in this map that much of the growth in immigrant populations occurred in rural areas. Immigrants grew quickly as a share in some rural census tracts in Kansas, Florida, Texas, Utah, and Washington. Because census tracts are bigger in areas where population is lower, these are the most visible when the map is zoomed out to the national level.

But most immigrants—like most of the population—live in metropolitan areas. In 2010, 85 percent of immigrants lived in the 100 largest metropolitan areas. Zooming into the metro areas across the United States reveals three key stories about US immigration over the past 25 years.  

Movement to the US Southeast

First, immigrants started moving in high numbers to cities in the US Southeast. In Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, you see that in 1990, all neighborhoods had only 10 percent or fewer foreign-born residents. But by 2010, many neighborhoods had high shares of immigrants, and some neighborhoods in Charlotte were majority-immigrant. Smaller neighboring towns saw increasing immigrant shares as well.

The same growth occurred in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1990, immigrants made up sizable shares of a few neighborhoods in one corner of the metro area. By 2010, immigrants formed large shares of neighborhoods to the north, northwest, and south of the city, and were filling into farther-flung suburbs and neighboring towns.

Growing numbers in suburbs

Second, in recent decades, immigrant shares of the population have been growing in suburban areas. In Chicago and DC, for example, you can see that immigrants already formed large shares of the metro-area population in 1990, but grew quickly as a share of the population in many suburban areas and neighboring towns over the subsequent 20 years.

Diverse local patterns

Third, the map shows clearly that immigrants’ residence patterns vary widely across the country. Immigrants filled quickly into almost all areas of some cities, such as Las Vegas, from 1990 to 2010. In the New York City metro area, immigrants filled into the city’s five boroughs and into neighboring towns in New Jersey and on Long Island alike. In Milwaukee, immigrant populations moved south as they grew. In Houston and Denver, immigrants shifted from central city neighborhoods to suburban areas. And immigrants have settled into a seeming patchwork of neighborhoods in the Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area. Each local story presents different challenges and opportunities for communities and the immigrant families living there.

We invite you to zoom into your city to see how the residence patterns of immigrants have changed where you live.

The nonprofit Urban Institute is dedicated to elevating the debate on social and economic policy. Urban Institute work utilizing the Neighborhood Change Database is funded by The Rockefeller Foundation. Funders do not determine research findings or influence scholars’ conclusions. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Research Areas Immigrants and immigration
Tags Immigrant access to the safety net Immigrant communities demographics and trends Rural people and places
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population