The changes in Southern California reflected a national shift, with the Latino growth rate slowing across the South and the Northeast. Meanwhile, an increasing number of counties, particularly in the Northern Plains, lost Latinos.
"The national movement of Latinos and other minorities to the fast-growing, booming parts of the country has pulled back," said William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "As a result, places like Los Angeles, which has been a traditional gateway, is now getting some rebounding growth."
Analysts said the recession was probably the major reason for both the decline in growth rates of Latino and Asian populations and the rates' increase in major urban areas.
Many of the areas experiencing the sharpest declines in Latino growth have also been hit hard by the recession. Among more than 3,000 U.S. counties, Riverside County suffered the nation's ninth-highest home foreclosure rate, at 8.4%, while San Bernardino County ranked 12th, at 7.5%, according to a new study by the Pew Hispanic Center.
Since the housing bust began in 2005, homeownership rates have fallen more sharply for Latinos and blacks than the population overall, the study found.
When immigrants lose their homes or jobs in outlying areas, they may be moving back to traditional gateway cities that offer bigger social networks, family support and immigrant services, analysts said.
"The only thing pushing them to more inhospitable environments was the economic boom," said Randy Capps, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. "But once they lose their jobs, you might see them return to more comfortable and welcoming environments like Los Angeles."
Jorge-Mario Cabrera, a Los Angeles immigrant rights activist, said his grass-roots experience backed up the view that a combination of economic distress and tough enforcement policies may have driven more migrants back to urban centers. Among immigrants, he said, stories are circulating that Inland Empire law enforcement officials will stop people to check for papers and turn in those without them to immigration authorities for deportation.
In San Bernardino County, one mother was stopped while driving to buy milk for her child and was so quickly deported she had to call from Tijuana to check on her family, while some truckers are now taking detours outside San Bernardino to avoid authorities, said Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Day laborers are congregating more in central locations, such as the Pico-Union area near downtown Los Angeles, than in places like Lake Elsinore and San Bernardino, he said. Younger immigrants used to hop on tour buses to Las Vegas and stay to look for jobs, but immigrant advocates there have reported a decline in those doing so, Cabrera said.
For the first time in years, the Latino growth rate dipped below 5% in the fast-growing counties that are home to Las Vegas and Phoenix, the data showed.
About 125 counties had Latino growth rates of 10% or more, fewer than half as many as the previous year.
"The combination of the decompression of job opportunities and the expanded reign of terror against undocumented immigrants has forced many people to remain put in big cities," Cabrera said. "Safety in numbers has been the mantra."
Overall, the nation's minority population increased by 2.3% last year over the previous year, numbering 104.6 million, or 34% of the total. The growth rate was down slightly from the prior year.
Capps and other analysts said the slowdown in Latino growth rates was probably driven primarily by a reduction in the number of illegal immigrants here. Their population declined to 11.9 million last year from 12.4 million in 2007, and the annual inflow has dropped to 500,000 in the last few years from 800,000 in the first half of the decade, the Pew Hispanic Center has estimated.
Immigration control advocates hailed the slowdown, saying it would ease pressure on schools, hospitals and other public services, and open up wider job opportunities for U.S. citizens.
"Any decline in immigration is good for most Americans and especially good for Hispanic Americans and black Americans," said Roy Beck of NumbersUSA, an immigration control group. "There will be less competition for jobs and less pressure on natural resources and public infrastructure."
Dowell Myers, a USC demographer, called the downturn a "temporary pause" and said immigration would probably rise again as the economy recovered.
"Immigrants always respond to the economy," he said. "The boom and bust cycle is totally normal."
Times staff writer Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.