(September 2002) America has always been a country on the move, and its growing immigrant population has added to that mobility. Yet recently released Census 2000 place-of-birth data show that the native-born population is moving to a different set of states than the traditional immigrant gateways — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey — that continue to show the largest foreign-born gains.

At the same time, a new migration dynamic is developing. “Domestic migration magnets,” the destinations that appeal to the native-born, are now prompting secondary migration of the foreign-born, who are beginning to disperse from the gateways. Because they are losing their hold on both domestic and foreign-born migrants, states like California and New York are becoming even more reliant on new immigrants as a source of population growth.

Domestic Migration Magnets

During the 1990s, the states that appealed most to domestic migrants, or native-born migrants from other states, were in the South and the West. (The top half of Table 1 shows the top five, along with the top metropolitan magnets.) Georgia, North Carolina, and Arizona are increasingly attractive because of their growing economies, relatively low cost of living, and their weather and recreational amenities. They draw native-born residents from more expensive, congested coastal states (California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) and from midwestern states (Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio), all of which (like Hawaii and Washington, D.C.) registered declines during the 1990s in their populations born in other states.

Table 1
Areas That Gained the Most Domestic and Foreign-Born Migrants Between 1990 and 2000

States Metropolitan Areasa
Increase in Domestic Migrantsb Georgia 748,299 Atlanta 530,137
Florida 744,559 Las Vegas 392,606
North Carolina 701,226 Phoenix 363,225
Arizona 560,579 Denver 223,475
Texas 514,695 Dallas 188,743
Increase in Foreign-Born Migrantsc California 2,405,430 New York 1,524,229
Texas 1,375,206 Los Angeles 1,122,787
New York 1,016,272 San Francisco 651,611
Florida 1,008,227 Chicago 552,359
Illinois 576,786 Miami 485,309

a MSAs, CMSAs, and (in New England) NECMAs, as defined in June 2000 by the Office of Management and Budget; official names are abbreviated.
b 1990-2000 gains in people born in another U.S. state or born abroad to U.S. natives. The calculation of metropolitan area gains does not include people born in the same state as the metropolitan area.
c 1990-2000 gains in the foreign-born population.

Source: Author’s analysis of decennial census data.

The popularity of two magnet states, Florida and Texas, slipped during the last decade. In the 1980s, they ranked first and second in attracting residents born in other states, but in the 1990s fell to second and fifth place, respectively. Now the growth of each is more dependent on gains in foreign-born residents.

Immigration Gateways

California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, and New Jersey still experience the largest increases in the population of foreign-born (see the bottom half of Table 1). Collectively, these states are home to 69 percent of the nation’s foreign-born population but only 36 percent of its native-born residents. Yet these states have lost some of their dominance in foreign-born growth, garnering 60 percent of the country’s foreign-born gains in the 1990s compared with 87 percent in the 1980s. Beyond the gateway states, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, and Washington registered substantial gains in their foreign-born populations in the 1990s. Among metropolitan areas, New York and Los Angeles attracted the most foreign-born, followed by San Francisco, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Houston, and Washington, D.C. Together, these eight areas accounted for half of the nation’s foreign-born growth during the 1990s and were home to 57 percent of the foreign-born population.

New Dispersal Out of the Gateways …

While some among the foreign-born population are dispersing from the gateway states, the question arises: Is this dispersal occurring among the recent immigrants? Or is it due to the secondary migration of long-term foreign-born residents? The new census data suggest that the answer is both. Only 65 percent of recent (1990-2000) immigrants live in the six gateway states, compared with 71 percent of the long-term foreign-born residents (who arrived pre-1990). This suggests that many new immigrants are choosing to live outside of traditional gateway states. Yet long-term foreign-born residents are less likely to live in these states in 2000 than they were in 1990, suggesting that secondary migration of the foreign-born population is also a factor.

With the new dispersal of both recent immigrants and long-term foreign-born residents from the traditional immigrant gateway states, these states are becoming even more dependent on new immigrants for continued growth. During the 1990s, California, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois lost both domestic migrants and long-term foreign-born to other states (see figure for the effects on California and New York). As a result, the foreign-born and immigrant minority compositions of these states, and of their major metropolitan areas, are likely to become even more demographically distinct from other parts of the country.

 … And Into Domestic Migration Magnets

While the share of long-term foreign-born residents has decreased in traditional gateways, it has increased in states and metropolitan areas where domestic migration dominates growth. These include Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina, and the metropolitan areas of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Atlanta (see Table 2). The long-term foreign-born residents relocating there appear to be attracted by the growing employment opportunities created in part by the larger domestic migration.

Table 2
Greatest Gainers From Secondary Migration of the Foreign-Born*

Nevada 72,471
Arizona 60,597
Georgia 59,384
North Carolina 46,566
Texas 39,682
Metropolitan Areas
Las Vegas 70,493
Phoenix 50,650
Atlanta 49,918
Dallas 35,355
Orlando 29,068

*1990-2000 gains in foreign-born residents who arrived in the United States to live, prior to 1990.
Source: Author’s analysis of decennial census data.

The influx of domestic migrants in these states has boosted demand for construction, service, and retail jobs, which are increasingly filled by immigrants. The relationship between domestic migration and immigrant dispersal is particularly visible in seven states: Nevada, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, and Utah. In these states, migration of people born in other states contributed at least 10 percent to the total growth during the 1990s; in all but one of these (Idaho), foreign-born gains contributed at least an additional 5 percent.

How will both groups of migrants fare in their new communities? Their different demographic attributes will likely keep them apart, creating the potential for “barbell economies.” Domestic migrants tend to be highly educated; recent foreign-born migrants to these areas tend not to be. In Nevada, for example, college graduates increased by 97 percent over the 1990s, while high school dropouts increased by 51 percent (comparable national figures are 38 percent and –9 percent).

Other states showing similar education shifts are Arizona, Colorado, and Utah — states that are attracting both domestic and foreign-born migrant growth. In Georgia and North Carolina, the education effects are less dramatic, but both states have shown recent gains in people who do not speak English very well. New immigrants may have a hard time assimilating because they are taking lower-skilled jobs, which will segregate them from the domestic migrants.

Melting Pots and Barbells

For states like New York and California, recent immigration now represents the primary source of migratory growth. These states are true melting pots, with high incidences of mixed-race marriages, multi-race identification, immigrant minority presence in the suburbs, and influence on elections and other local institutions.

For states in the South and West whose growth has been dominated by domestic migration, recent gains in foreign-born migrants bring ethnic and cultural diversity but also new challenges. The new immigrant minorities are still in the minority and are much more likely to be separated residentially and socioeconomically from the rest of the population.

William H. Frey is a demographer on the faculty of the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center and a senior fellow at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, California.

For More Information

For more on this topic, look for two upcoming articles by the author:

“Census 2000 Reveals New Native and Foreign Born Migrant Shifts Across U.S.” Research Report 02-520. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Population Studies Center, University of Michigan, 2002.

“Three Americas: The Rising Significance of Regions.” Journal of the American Planning Association 68, no. 4 (Autumn 2002).