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Born in U.S.A.? Not in Miami

In Miami-Dade County, more than half the residents were born in another country. That's the highest rate for any county in the country.

Published September 3, 2003

Miami-Dade County, a trendsetter in hip fashion and bizarre crime, has broken another milestone as the nation's cultural melting pot.

Florida's largest county is the only county in the country where more than half the residents are foreign-born, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey released today.

Miami-Dade's foreign-born residents account for 51.4 percent of its population of 2.3-million. That tops counties in larger metro areas, such as Queens and Kings counties in New York, and San Francisco and Los Angeles counties in California.

In Florida, Miami-Dade has by far the largest portion of foreign-born residents. Neighboring Broward County ranks second among major counties in Florida and 17th nationally with 27.7 percent.

"It's an extraordinary thing that's happened," University of Miami professor Thomas Boswell said Tuesday.

Boswell, a professor of geography and regional studies and an expert in Florida immigration, said everything from major social changes to the economy have been influenced by the influx of residents from other countries.

Miami-Dade reflects population trends nationally and statewide. There are now 33-million foreign-born residents in the United States, the Census Bureau reports, a 44 percent increase since 1990. Florida has added more than 1-million residents who were born in a foreign country, and they now make up 17.9 percent of the state's population of 16.7-million.

In 1990, foreign-born residents made up 12.9 percent of Florida's population.

"Florida's immigrant population is just growing by leaps and bounds," said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. "It's one of the key factors driving the state's population growth."

The Census survey, conducted in 2002, includes both legal and illegal immigrants. The numbers probably are even higher, because experts say illegal immigrants often avoid government surveys.

In the Tampa Bay area, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have seen their foreign-born populations grow far faster than the general population.

In Hillsborough, 13 percent of the more than 1-million residents are foreign-born, ranking it 80th among the nation's largest counties. Census data shows the foreign-born population grew more than 80 percent during the 1990s, four times the growth rate of the overall population.

In Pinellas, the portion of foreign-born residents topped 10 percent for the first time in 2002, according to the Census Bureau. The foreign born population grew 45 percent during the 1990s, nearly six times the growth rate of the overall population.

Even Pasco County, which traditionally is one of Florida's least diverse counties, saw its growth rate of foreign-born residents increase nearly twice as much as its overall growth rate of 23 percent. Now 7 percent of Pasco's population was born in another country.

And the number of foreign-born residents in Florida is expected to continue to rise.

"How could it not?" Camarota said. "We've done nothing to slow down illegal immigration, and we've done nothing to stop legal immigration."

Florida's immigrant population is diverse. While Cubans continue to represent the largest share of foreign-born residents, immigrants are coming from geographically and culturally diverse areas.

In Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties in South Florida, the largest groups of foreign-born residents are from Cuba, Colombia, Haiti, Nicaragua and Jamaica. But the second-largest group of foreign-born residents statewide - and the fastest growing - are from Mexico.

Also among the top 10 largest immigrant groups are residents who were born in Canada, Germany and England. Asian populations, while still relatively small, have some of the largest growth rates, according to Census figures.

Paul Kim, born and raised in Korea to missionary parents, has lived in Tampa for five years. The youth minister at the Korean First Baptist Mission on Huntington Avenue said he misses the mountains and the seasons of his homeland, but he likes this area.

"I think of this city as one of the best," said Kim, 35. "It's not large; it's not small. Everything you need is here."

Growth in foreign-born populations carries with it political and social implications. Many immigrants to the United States come with little education. They may not speak English, and they often take low-paying jobs initially.

Camarota cited studies showing 32 percent of the state's foreign-born immigrants and their children lack insurance compared to 13 percent of U.S.-born residents, and 31 percent lack a high school diploma compared to 13 percent of U.S.-born residents.

Education is the reason Monica Escobar moved to Pinellas County. The 19-year-old native of Colombia moved to Clearwater four years ago to finish high school and pursue a degree in chemical engineering at the University of South Florida.

Despite having a high school diploma from Colombia, Escobar entered the 12th grade at Countryside High School in Clearwater so she could brush up on her English. She graduated magna cum laude and applied for scholarships at USF.

"The first classes in chemistry I took in Spanish in Colombia," said Escobar, who now lives in Oldsmar. "Here I have to translate. But the math is easier. Math doesn't change. It doesn't matter the language."

She knows a lot of Colombians call Miami their new home, but for many more the Clearwater area is becoming a viable option.

"They are starting to learn about Clearwater," she said. "In Colombia there are a lot of people saying this is a good place to do investments. I like it here because it's calm. It's not like Miami. Here you find your own privacy."

Miami wasn't an option for Colombia native Julian Acuna, 35, a translator who sometimes helps out at La Gringa, an immigration services company in Clearwater.

"I don't like Miami because it's such a big, fast and disorganized city," said Acuna, who lives in Tampa. "It's contradictory. I came to Clearwater because it's a city full of immigrants. It's calm, quiet and safe."

- Times staff writers Adrienne P. Samuels and Brady Dennis contributed to this report.

[Last modified September 3, 2003, 01:46:35]

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