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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- With almost 9 percent of its population foreign-born, the area around Utah's capital has been identified as a "pre-emerging" immigrant gateway city, according to a new study.
The Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution lists the greater Salt Lake City area as one that has seen a surge in immigrants in the past decade.
"It must seem like it happened overnight it you live there. But this is what is occurring in all of these newer, pre-emerging cities," said Audrey Singer, author of the study, "The Rise of New Immigrant Gateways."
"Typically, these are medium-sized cities that have experienced a lot of (immigrant) growth in a relatively compact period of time," she said.
Other cities cited as "pre-emerging" are Austin, Texas and the North Carolina cities of Charlotte, Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and Raleigh-Durham.
The number of foreign-born residents in the Salt Lake City-Ogden metropolitan area jumped by 174 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 42,000 to nearly 115,000 people, according to 2000 census figures.
"Normally in a recession, in a tough economy, you see an out-migration as people leave the state to look for jobs. But we continue to see in-migration in Utah because of these international migrants," said Neil Ashdown, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget.
Although about 41 percent of the area's immigrants are from Mexico, Singer said, the remainder represent a diverse sampling from Central and South America, Asia and the Pacific Islands.
James Yapias, chairman of the state's Democratic Hispanic Caucus, said the state needs to anticipate continued immigration.
"By 2015, it's estimated that one out of every five Utahns will be of Latino background, so that's something we all need to look at," he said.
The study comes while the Legislature is debating the rights of undocumented residents. Two bills introduced this session would restrict their ability to obtain a driver's license or identification card.
"It's very ironic that we're being considered an immigrant gateway at the same time we're taking steps to limit the rights of immigrants," says Theresa Martinez, a sociology professor at the University of Utah.
According to the study, 34 percent of the foreign-born arrive without strong English skills and almost 19 percent live below the poverty line.
But the Salt Lake area's social and economic environment may give immigrants a better opportunity for success than in larger cities, Yapias said.
"There are economic opportunities here," he said. "But people are really attracted to Utah's lifestyle and its cost of living. People have more purchasing power here. Housing is more affordable. And it's a good place to raise kids."
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)