Hispanic Birthrate Is Changing State’s Look

Hispanic birthrate is changing state's look
Tennessee will be more diverse if trend continues

February 16, 2008

The Hispanic birthrate in Tennessee is exploding, far outpacing the national rate.

The number of Hispanic babies born in Tennessee grew from 444 in 1990 to 7,885 in 2006, according to state Department of Health data. Hispanic births almost doubled in the U.S. during this same time period.

There's great disagreement on what this trend means to the state and America. Some say it's destroying American culture and burdening American taxpayers. Others argue that diversity is good for the country and that immigrants are a boon to the economy.

However, there's one thing everyone agrees on. Tennessee and the nation are beginning to look different and will be even more diverse in coming years. The Pew Hispanic Center report released this week shows that if current trends continue, whites will become the minority in the nation by 2050.

“The face of America is changing, and it's becoming more apparent,” said Jeff Passel, a demographer for the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research group. “Go back 15 years and there were almost no Latinos in the southeastern United States. The growth of the Hispanic population in Tennessee and the Southeast has been notable.”

The state doesn't ask whether the parents are in the country legally.

Demographers say the birth-rate increase is the direct result of the increase in Hispanics moving to the state. Tennessee experienced the fourth-highest Hispanic growth rate in the country, 55.5 percent from 2000 to 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Tennessee is behind only Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina.

Passel said the changing demographic has its roots in a recession that occurred in California in the early 1990s that caused a lot of Hispanics to move to other parts of the country. A 2005 Pew report dubbed “The New Latino South” attributes the South's draw to a “robust economy.”

“The Southeast was one of the fastest-growing regions in the country during the 1990s, and economic progress was spread across a variety of industries,” the report says.

While Tennessee is experiencing rapid growth in Hispanic population, the percentage of Hispanics living in the state is still much smaller than the national average. About 3.2 percent of people who live in Tennessee are Hispanic, compared with 14.8 percent nationwide.

Theresa Harmon, co-founder of Tennesseans for Responsible Immigration Policy, said she sees the trend as a threat to the American lifestyle.

She worries that first- and second-generation immigrants may be more dependent on social services, such as welfare and Medicaid, than the rest of the population, creating a burden on taxpayers. She also is upset with news stories about illegal immigrants being arrested for drunken driving, among other things.

“Issues that we have been fighting for years to get rid of are coming back,” Harmon said.

Yuri Cunza, president of the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, counters that immigrants are hard workers who are helping the economy. He also thinks it's wrong to stereotype Hispanic people as drunken drivers because people of all colors are guilty of drunken driving.

“It is good to have diversity, because it better reflects the world we live in,” Cunza said. “But we need to get beyond looking at someone as Hispanic or African-American or white. Instead of focusing on the differences, we need to look at the similarities between us.”

Trend to continue

The 2005 Pew report addresses the views of Harmon and Cunza.

“For now, employers in the region are happy to have a dependable source of low-cost labor available to them,” the report states. “As the new immigrants grow older and utilize more health services, and as more wives join their husbands, evening out the current gender imbalance leading to more children, the demands they make on public services will increase but so too may their contributions to the tax bases supporting those services.”

While the rate of Hispanic births in Tennessee exploded from 1990 to 2006, the birthrate among white and black infants remained pretty static in the state. Nationally the number of Hispanic births went from 595,073 to 1,039,051 during that time period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Pew report that was released earlier this week projects that the trend will continue. Hispanics are expected to make up 29 percent of the U.S. population in 2050, compared with 14.8 percent in 2006. Whites are expected to become a minority, 47 percent, of the population by 2050.

Contact Claudia Pinto at 259-8277 or cpinto@tennessean.com.