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    Hispanics, Asians fuel population growth

    New Census figures show Colombians, Dominicans and Asians pouring into Florida. Jobs are among the reasons.

    By ALICIA CALDWELL and MATTHEW WAITE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 24, 2002


    Diversity in Florida has long meant a deeply rooted population of African-Americans and the Cubans clustered in Miami and Tampa.

    But new numbers released today by the U.S. Census Bureau show that the state's booming population is being fueled by thousands of new people from Colombia, the Dominican Republic, India and the Philippines.

    Demographic researchers cite the availability of jobs and the establishment of immigrant networks as the main reasons why Asians and Hispanics continue to settle in Florida. The weather doesn't hurt, either.

    "It's become a kind of mecca for Latin America," said Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit research group based in Washington, D.C.

    The Hispanic population has grown substantially in the past decade, surpassing African-Americans as the largest minority group in the state. There were about 2.7-million Hispanics -- who can be of any race -- in Florida in 2000, up from 1.6-million in 1990.

    The new numbers further define the diverse group of people who make up the state's Hispanic population. The largest Hispanic groups are, in descending order: Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Colombians, Nicaraguans and Dominicans.

    The Nicaraguan population didn't increase by much in the 1990s, but other groups did. The number of Colombians statewide jumped 66 percent in the 1990s, to 138,768; Dominicans increased 107 percent, to 70,968; Guatemalans increased 111 percent to 28,650.

    Camarota said that while the cultures are very different, the Cuban vanguard likely paved the way for the other Hispanic groups by establishing a demand for Spanish-language media and government services delivered in Spanish.

    "They laid the groundwork and made it a friendly environment for other Hispanics," Camarota said.

    The new Census numbers do not define whether the new residents are coming from their home countries or other parts of the U.S. However, other data support the contention that substantial numbers are coming here from Central and South America, and that the immigrants already living here are having children, Camarota said.

    The reasons they leave their homes are as different as the countries themselves. Several experts cited the drug-related chaos and economic problems in Colombia as the reason many middle class Colombians have fled their country for the United States.

    While the temptation for politicians and marketers would be to address the groups with a single message, the complexity of the makeup of Asians and Hispanics suggests the pitfalls in doing so.

    Margarita Romo of Farmworkers Self Help in Dade City, a nonprofit group that helps migrant farmworkers, said the individual Hispanic groups don't often intermingle.

    "There's a lot of difference in our customs," Romo said.

    Romo, who is Mexican, said having dinner with Puerto Rican friends can be a lesson in those differences, with her friends preferring one kind of bean and bread over her kind of bean and tortilla.

    The lesson translates to politics and policy.

    "In each county just in the Tampa Bay area, the dominant Hispanic group may be different," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "That's why it costs so much to run for office."

    While Hispanics historically have settled in South Florida, that tide is turning, she said.

    "They're just like everyone else," MacManus said. "They don't want to live in Miami. If you've just left a corrupt country, you probably don't want to live in Miami."

    Digs about Miami's corruption scandals aside, the county-by-county numbers show a spreading population of minorities. Certainly, many of the Hispanic sub-groups remain clustered around Miami-Dade and Broward counties, but Hillsborough and Orange counties have substantial numbers of Puerto Ricans, Colombians and Dominicans as well.

    "One of the things that is drawing Central and South Americans to the central part of the state is the service sector jobs," MacManus said.

    The economy also pulls Asians to Florida, experts said, but they also follow family here and many find the weather is similar to what they left at home.

    The state's Asian population has increased by nearly 83 percent during the past decade, to a population of 266,256. That growth was fueled by people whose roots lie in India, the Philippines, China and Vietnam.

    Bun Hap Prak, the executive director of the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center in St. Petersburg, said Asians are drawn here by grocery stores, restaurants or businesses that understand a certain culture and speak a certain language.

    "If they are still uncomfortable as to finding a livelihood or the language here . . . they're looking for a certain level of support," he said.

    Some Asians come to Florida for a more traditional reason: the weather.

    Asian retirement communities are beginning to form, he said, made up of people who do not want to age in the cold weather up north.

    So in places where the Asian communities are smaller -- such as in Pasco County -- the trend will continue toward growth. Prak said he is getting more calls from north Pinellas and west Pasco.

    "It may be only one or two calls a month," he said, "but the indication is that the populations there are growing."

    -- Computer-assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg contributed to this report.

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