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Immigrant Flow Shifts to Smaller Cities

• December 01, 2010 • 11:00 AM

While big cities have been the traditional gateways for America’s waves of immigration, midsize cities are becoming the new destinations.

The Pew Hispanic Center has predicted that the U.S. population will grow by more than 100 million over the next 40 years solely as a result of immigration — legal and illegal — and the children born to immigrants already here.

Those numbers are in line with several other forecasts based on Census Bureau data, and certainly sound right to associate professor Gary Painter, director of research at the University of Southern California Lusk Center for Real Estate.

Where will all those people live? Painter, a specialist in urban economics, homeownership and housing markets, has a pretty good idea.

In a study published in the International Migration Review, Painter and co-author Zhou Yu, an assistant professor at the University of Utah, have been looking at links between geographic location and home-buying trends among immigrants.

The focus of their research has been the steady drift of new immigrants away from the major gateway cities — New York, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco, Chicago and San Diego — and toward midsize cities and urban areas.

Among places attracting immigrants while major gateways are losing them are Las Vegas, Atlanta, Boston, Seattle, Dallas-Fort Worth, Detroit, Minneapolis, Nashville, Tenn., Colorado Springs, Colo., El Paso, Texas, Sarasota, Fla., Orlando, Fla., and Sacramento, Calif.

“Our data suggest that immigrants are attracted to homes near active support networks of fellow immigrants and in places with lower rates of immigrant growth resulting in less competition for entry-level jobs,” Painter said.

“The anticipated rapid growth of U.S. immigrant populations in the coming decades, coupled with their movement into midsize metro areas, has the potential to transform communities.”

Given the huge numbers predicted, Painter suggests local governments could seize the opportunity to be proactive by encouraging provision of the necessary housing, public transport and social services.

They might achieve this by partnering with home builders or by trying to ensure enough people are available with the language and cultural skills to assist the new residents, especially in areas like real estate and lending.

While immigrants arrive from all over the world, Painter says Hispanic and Chinese are the most broadly represented. But there are concentrated pockets of others, such as Ukrainians in Sacramento.

Painter says good communication skills are vital in situations where smaller metro areas prepare to absorb an influx of recently arrived immigrants. “Language is key to helping communities become more hospitable to immigrants,” who are then more likely to buy homes and stay there, he added.

In areas where communities succeed in offering a warm welcome, along with employment and housing opportunities, Painter says first-time immigrant home buyers can help stabilize previously declining home values.

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Frank Nelson
Frank Nelson has written for newspapers and magazines in England (his original home), New Zealand (his adopted home), Australia (a temporary home) and the United States (his current home). The author of two lighthearted travel books, All You Need is Luck and A Little More Luck, he is now a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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