As immigration slows down nationwide, New Jersey continues to outpace the rest of the country in the growth of its immigrant population, the latest census figures show.
The American Community Survey’s 2011 one-year estimate shows the number of foreign-born residents in the U.S. increased by 1 percent from 2010, or just more than 422,000 people, a notable drop from growth of almost 1.5 million from 2009 to 2010.
Reasons for immigrating vary from political or financial struggles in home countries to seeking higher education and job opportunities.
Mawon Barclay, of Pleasantville, is originally from the West African country of Liberia. She first came to the U.S. in 2001 seeking political asylum while civl war tore her country apart, she said.
“When I see kids getting together and in trouble and doing drugs, I say, ‘I wish you guys could go to Africa for just one day, to appreciate,’” she said, adding that she is thankful to be living in the U.S.
At first, Barclay worked in a casino, but she is now a certified nursing assistant and eventually opened Poteau African Village, a restaurant that serves West African cuisine. Since the war ended in Liberia, there is not as much of a rush out of the country, she said.
“When the economy was booming, there were ample jobs and opportunities for the foreign-born to come to the country,” said Bert Lopez, board member of the Hispanic Alliance of New Jersey. “Certainly, the recession hit very hard and it’s difficult to even find the jobs no one else is willing to do.”
The survey numbers show a continued trend nationwide and statewide of a slowdown in the Latin American-born population as the Asian-born population steadily grows.
Overall, New Jersey’s foreign-born population grew by 2.6 percent in 2011, showing more growth than the rest of the country for the third straight year. The state saw growth of almost 5 percent in 2010 and 2.4 percent in 2009, outpacing the 3.7 percent and 1.5 percent rates for the country.
Despite the recession and some U.S. citizens being unable to get jobs, immigrants still choose to struggle because it is better than staying in their home country, said immigration lawyer Jude Nelson, who practices in Atlantic City, Newark and New York.
“Often it is a hundred or a million times worse back home,” he said, referring to both the economy and politics. But that is not always the case.
Though he comes from a relatively well-to-do family in Bangladesh, Mohammed K. Nobi, 30, of Atlantic City, said he moved to the U.S. for a better life. The money he earns from working at a convenience store is sent home to help members of his immediate and extended family. Nobi sees the effects of the recession, but those living in Bangladesh don’t.
“They don’t realize because we are (still) sending money,” he said. The thousands sent home convert to hundreds of thousands in Bangladeshi taka.
The common practice among foreign-born residents to send money back home is either to support their families or as a savings account.
Sometimes, if they are undocumented workers, they send a majority of it home with the thought that, “If something should happen, I will have my money waiting for me,” Nelson said.
In addition, it can be hard for immigrants to find a place to live or open a bank account, he said.
“If they don’t have a Social Security number, sometimes landlords and property owners won’t rent to them because they cannot check their credit background. And without a Social Security number, they can’t open savings accounts,” Nelson said, adding that it encourages the practice of sending money abroad.
The segment of the U.S. population born in Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking countries from Mexico, Central America and South America grew by just more than 21,000 in 2011, a drop from a growth of more than 768,000 in 2010. New Jersey, while again seeing a higher growth percentage than the country at large, also saw the yearly growth in its Latin population drop from almost 57,000 in 2010 to less than 21,000 in 2011.
Part of the small increase in Latinos is because many already in the U.S. chose to return home due to the slow economy, Lopez said.
Jobs in factories, which used to be readily available for immigrants, are now being filled by college graduates, Nelson said.
At the same time, many of the new immigrants are now highly skilled workers from Asian countries such as China and India — contributing to much of the growth in the foreign-born population in not only New Jersey but California, New York and Illinois.
The growth of the Asian-born population in New Jersey increased slightly, from about 21,000 additional residents in 2010 to more than 24,000 in 2011, a notable figure as national growth dropped by more than half.
Even so, the U.S. Asian-born population saw a larger percentage of population growth over the past four years than its Latin-born counterpart.
“A lot of Asian-born come here on visas, for jobs in fields like engineering and higher tech, in addition to hospitality,” said Richard Perniciaro, director of the Center for Regional and Business Research at Atlantic Cape Community College. “They have a little broader of a portfolio of jobs. Even when growth is slowing, (employers) still need the sets of skills the Asian population brings.”
Companies sometimes make investments in these employees by sponsoring their visas or green cards. Sponsorship ranges in price from $1,000 to $6,000, depending on whether it is a visa or green card.
Jae W. Lee, corporate counsel for Computer Sciences Corp., based in Virginia, moved to the U.S. because his father was a diplomat from Seoul, South Korea. His family was upper-middle class, but he chose to stay in the U.S. because there were more opportunities and a better life for his children. The same opportunities for higher education — in his case law school — exist back home, but there is also less academic pressure in the U.S. and it is a lot less stressful, Lee said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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