The United States grew steadily more diverse last year, with Latinos holding on to their rank as the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group, a trend with far-reaching implications for American politics and immigration policies.
Newly released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that the nation's Latino population grew by 1.4 million in 2007 to reach 45.5 million people, or 15.1% of the total U.S. population of 301.6 million. Blacks ranked as the second-largest minority group, at 40.7 million.
Overall, the nation's 102.5 million minorities accounted for 34% of the U.S. population, a new milepost on America's inexorable journey toward greater diversity and a harbinger of the growing political clout of nonwhites.
The latest population figures "certainly do suggest some dramatic changes, particularly in states like Texas and California that have experienced these population shifts first and fastest," said Karl Eschbach, the official Texas state demographer and a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "What does this imply for the future of our country? That's a complex question. I would predict that by 2040, we would have a very different definition of majority and minority in America."
Tensions over America's growing Spanish-speaking population have been mounting in recent years, driven by the fears of many political conservatives that the country is being overrun by both legal and illegal immigrants, the majority of them from Mexico.
Anti-immigrant groups commonly estimate that 12 million illegal immigrants are currently living in the country, and a patchwork of laws cracking down on them and mandating English as Americans' official language have flourished at the local, state and national levels.
But the new population figures shed little light on that debate, because the Census Bureau does not attempt to determine immigration status as part of its surveys. What census officials are able to say is that of the 1.4 million increase in the Latino population last year, about 38% was attributable to new immigrants entering the country, legally or illegally.
"There's a real perception among some Americans right now that immigration is suddenly at their front door," said David A. Shirk, director of the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego. "They are not used to it. They are not convinced that those groups are going to effectively assimilate. And they are very concerned that our way of life in the United States is going to have to change as a result of that."
Highlights from the 2007 census data:
* Four states and the District of Columbia were regarded as "majority minority," meaning that more than 50% of their population consists of nonwhites. Hawaii led the nation, with a population that was 75% minority in 2007, followed by the District of Columbia (68%), New Mexico (58%), California (57%) and Texas (52%).
* California had the largest Latino population of any state last year, with 13.2 million accounting for 36% of the total population. Texas was next, with 8.6 million (also 36% of the population), followed by Florida, with 3.8 million (21%).
* Texas had the largest numerical increase in Latinos between 2006 and 2007 (308,000), followed by California (268,000) and Florida (131,000).
* In New Mexico, Latinos constituted the highest proportion of the total population, at 44%.
* Illinois' minority population reached 35%, ranking it 15th in the nation. The number of blacks (2 million) and Latinos (1.9 million) was nearly even, although the Latino population grew by 3%, while the black population was nearly unchanged.
* Nationally, Latinos were the fastest-growing minority group, with a 3.3% population increase. Asians were the second-fastest-growing group, with a 2.9% increase. The black population grew by 1.3%, and the white population grew by 0.3%. Native Americans grew by 1%, and native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders grew by 1.6%.
* Latinos are considerably younger than other population groups. They had a median age of 27.6, compared with 36.6 for the population as a whole. For blacks, the median age was 31.1; for Asians, it was 35.4; and for whites, it was 40.8.
Complete 2007 figures can be found at the U.S. Census Bureau website, www.census.gov.