Melting Pot Moves to the Suburbs
Aug 04, 1999
Publisher: Newsday


The recent controversy over Hispanic day laborers on Long Island is not unique to suburban New York. Similar conflicts involving new immigrant minorities have been commonplace in Orange County, California, in the bedroom communities surrounding San Francisco, and in the suburbs of other large immigrant gateway regions of the country.

These confrontations make news not so much because they pit the interests of new immigrants against those of longer-term residents. They are noteworthy because of where they are occurring i? 1/2 in previously white-bread suburbs, areas that used to signal "making it" to successive generations of the nation's white middle class.

Yet, in the nation's largest immigrant gateway regions, this image of suburbia no longer squares with the reality of the dramatically changing demographics. During the first seven years of the 1990s, Nassau and Suffolk counties gained 44,000 Hispanics and 28,000 Asians, while losing 37,000 whites.

Long Island is not alone. In fact, 16 of the 21 suburban counties in the greater New York region have experienced both immigrant gains and domestic migrant loses as the multiethnic city spills over into the rest of the region.

Has the melting pot arrived in the suburbs? Yes, but only in part of America. And it is here where the old melting pot model breaks down. Today, the key distinction is no longer between ethnic cities and white-bread suburbs, but between immigrant gateway regions and those parts of the country virtually untouched by these dramatic demographic changes.

These regions are anchored by just 10 of the nation's almost 300 metropolitan areas. Led by Los Angeles and New York, these gateway areas are on the coasts, the Southwest, southern Florida and Chicago. They are home to two-thirds of all this decade's immigrants and 60 percent of the nation's Hispanic and Asian populations. Two of these metro regions, Los Angeles and Miami, already have "minority white" populations; and the Houston and San Francisco metros are getting close.

As in the past, the new immigrant ethnics are attracted to areas with already established communities of co-nationals, friends and family who can supply social and economic support. Yet, in today's new "multiple melting pots" they are moving into the suburbs and contributing to the change in the social and demographic fabric of the entire region.

The mix of ethnics differs in each of these regions: Cubans and other Caribbeans in Miami; Mexican, Central Americans and Filipinos in Los Angeles; and a vast array of groups that have long been attracted to New York. The cities and suburbs in each of these melting pots will become similar, but one region will take on a dramatically difference character than another.

These gateways are becoming distinctive from the rest of America where more than three-quarters of the native-born population lies.

In fact, growing areas in the nation's Southeast and non-California West and amenity-laden communities in other parts of the heartland have attracted more than 4 million domestic migrants, mostly white and black, away from the immigrant regions during the 1990s. Most of these domestic migrants are not "fleeing" immigrants, but are attracted to jobs, quality of life and, yes, to a suburban environment less available in the congested, expensive suburbs of the gateway regions.

Whether the new divide between immigrant and heartland regions is good for America remains to be seen. Yet, the demographics make plain that Americanization in the new century will take place within distinct multiple melting pots, rather than a single melting pot.

These areas i? 1/2 both their cities and suburbs i? 1/2 will be younger, more vibrant and more multi-ethnic than the mostly white, more middle-class and aging populations of the heartland. These areas are growing the fastest and represent America's future.

To a large degree, how we accommodate each other in our new multiethnic suburbs will determine how well our nation can survive in a diverse, global economy.

William H. Frey is a Senior Fellow at the Milken Institute and a professor at the Center for Social and Demographic Analyses at SUNY-Albany.