Foreign-born population continues to grow in metro Atlanta

Published Dec. 18, 2010

Metro Atlanta continues to draw new foreign born residents despite the economic downturn, which sets it apart from many other regions around the country.

Atlanta's immigrant population grew by 42,000 people, or 6 percent, from 2007 to 2009. That steady increase was felt in many ways, both good and bad: providing low-cost labor while also burdening some public services, adding new flair and texture to the culture while deeply unsettling some longtime residents.

As of 2009, nearly three-quarters of a million foreign born people made the 28-county metro area their home, according to census figures, accounting for 13 percent of the population. The census distinguishes between foreign born people who are now U.S. citizens — in metro Atlanta, about one-third — and those who are not. But it does not determine which non-citizens are here legally; estimates on that question come from other sources relying on other data.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that 28 percent of the nation's foreign born population is illegal, though researchers say that the percentage in Georgia could twice that, because the state has so many recently arrived immigrants. Those who are in the country legally may be refugees, students with visas or employees with work permits.

Immigration is a potent force and a point of contention in metro Atlanta. The surge of foreign born residents has affected more facets of metro life — schools, public safety, the workplace, churches — than virtually any other phenomenon, save growth itself.

Unlike metro Atlanta, many American metropolitan areas saw immigration level off or decline during the global recession, according to a report released Thursday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

"Atlanta's economy did a little bit better," said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at Brookings and author of the study, "The Impact of the Great Recession on Immigration Trends."

That assessment may sound odd, considering the level of economic pain that has hit the metro area, especially among those sectors that employ immigrants, such as construction and landscaping. But Singer and other researchers point to other sectors that were not hit as hard and that employ immigrants, such as hotels, convention centers and large educational institutions.

Beyond that, immigrants remain a group willing to do unpleasant jobs, such as working in the chicken factories in Cherokee County, and many of those jobs continue to exist, said Harvey Newman, a public policy professor at Georgia State University.

Metro Atlanta emerged as a major immigrant destination in the 1990s, long after the major metropolitan centers of New York, Chicago and Baltimore. It is a leader in the trend toward immigrants settling in the suburbs rather than the urban core, with large enclaves residing in Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb counties.

The influx of immigrants did slow during the recession: the years 2005 to 2007 saw a 10 percent increase, considerably higher than the increase experienced during the recession years. It remains to be seen whether the pace of growth will pick up again or reach earlier levels. Some researchers have their doubts, pointing to the moribund real estate market and the push by Georgia lawmakers to tighten scrutiny on immigrants in this country illegally.

The recession has taken a severe toll on many immigrants, according to both census figures and the Brookings study. Poverty is up among the foreign born, especially in Gwinnett County, one of metro's earliest enclaves for immigrants. Gwinnett saw about a doubling in poverty among immigrants between 2007 and 2009, from 20,000 people to 45,000, the census found.

"Gwinnett is a major settlement area for Latino immigrants, and no doubt many of them were employed in the construction industry," said Mary Odem, an associate history professor at Emory University.

Nevertheless, many immigrants continue to regard metro Atlanta as a place where they can fulfill their dreams.

Born and raised in Kenya, George Odongo moved here about three years ago from Virginia. He wants to become a chaplain who helps children in hospitals, and he was drawn by the area's choice of schooling and ministries. Currently saving money from his job at a Dunwoody hotel, he plans to start night classes at a Lithonia seminary next year.

"It's a hub of education," said Odongo, 53. "My main purpose is to get a good education and do something with it."

Metro Atlanta also reflects national trends in the increase of naturalized citizens among immigrants. The census data also disproves some common perceptions, such as that most immigrants are from Mexico. In 2009, 27 percent of foreign born people in metro Atlanta were born in Mexico, making it the leading — but hardly the overwhelming — country of origin.

The immigration issue is expected to be front and center during the state's upcoming legislative session, with Republicans pressing hard for an Arizona-style law that could allow local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws and force employers to electronically verify the immigration status of employees. Those measures are opposed by many within the state's $65 million a year agriculture industry, which relies on immigrants for labor.

Pam Pinkard, a Smyrna resident and member of the Atlanta chapter of the Minutemen Project, a group that wants more stringent enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, said illegal immigrants are stealing jobs that should go to legal residents.

"We are a country of opportunity," Pinkard said. But because of the influx of illegal immigrants, "many may not have that opportunity."

Metro Atlanta has not bestowed the opportunities sought by every immigrant.

Ulices Hernandez, born in Mexico City, came here with his wife from Dallas about two years ago. He was a forklift operator there, but his wife wanted to move here because she had family here.

They moved smack into the recession. Finding a job was hard.

He and his wife are now separated. He’s working as a stock worker at the Doraville farmer’s market, not far from where he lives.

But with little here to hold him, Hernandez said, “I want to move back home.”

Not to Mexico, to Dallas.

Editor's note

What the Census does — and doesn’t — ask

Through the yearly American Community Survey, the Census Bureau gathers detailed demographic, economic, social and housing information from a sample of residents throughout the country. The section on citizenship asks:

  • Whether the person was born inside or outside the United States;
  • Which country a foreign-born person was born in;
  • Whether the person is a U.S. citizen, either by virtue of birth or through naturalization.

The census does not ask non-citizens whether they are in the U.S. legally. Therefore, the census is not a source of information on how many people are illegally in this country.