SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Nearly 162,000 foreign-born people called Utah home in 2002, up from 59,000 a dozen years ago, the U.S. Census Bureau reported Wednesday.
The state continues to rank in the top half nationally in the percentage of foreign-born residents. Immigrants now comprise more than 7 percent of the state's overall population, based on estimated figures from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey.
That ranked Utah 21st nationally, right behind Georgia (7.7 percent) and ahead of Minnesota (6.4). Nationally, foreign-born residents made up 11.8 percent of the 2002 population, with California (26.9 percent) leading the way.
In the survey, a canvass of 742,000 U.S. households, Salt Lake County ranked 110th out of more than 3,000 counties nationally. As of last year, the county was home to 86,000 immigrants, or 9.5 percent of the overall population.
Based upon the higher end of its estimates, the census report says, Utah's foreign-born population could be as large as 176,000.
The majority of the newcomers are from Latin America. But they also are arriving in significant numbers from Asia and Europe, and increasingly from Africa.
Hadija Abdi spent the past 10 years in refugee camps. Before that, she lived in the Somali bush. Abdi, her cousin Omar Abdi and their combined eight children now live in a South Salt Lake apartment complex.
They are Somali Bantus, a group that will eventually number 12,000 in the United States under the current federal refugee plan. The Salt Lake City area, one of 30 refugee gateway cities nationally, is expected to be home to 500.
Aden Batar, director of refugee settlement for Salt Lake's Catholic Community Services chapter, recalls Hadija Abdi was terrified upon arriving in Utah last June.
"She'd never seen an apartment. She really only lived out in the bushes, and in huts in the refugee camps," he said. "She asked me if we could find someone to live with her. She was really overwhelmed."
Abdi is learning English, and because she doesn't drive, spends all day walking her older children to and from school and caring for her little ones. But she wouldn't trade her new life for anything.
"I never had my own home. I never had a TV. I never had this life before," she said through an interpreter. "Now, we feel freedom."
Neil Ashdown, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, said the census figures aren't surprising, because the West is still one of the fastest growing areas in the nation.
"People are moving here for work and quality of life reasons. Even though the economy is soft, we still offer advantages, compared to their situations at home," Ashdown said.
The lure of jobs remains powerful. According to census figures compiled by the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research, Wendover has the state's highest percentage of foreign-born residents (46.2 percent), followed by Park City (19.4), Salt Lake City (18.3), South Salt Lake (17.7), Midvale (15.2) and West Valley City (14.4). Other large concentrations of immigrants can be found in Moroni, Brian Head and Fillmore.
"In Wendover they're working at the casinos, at Park City and Brian Head they're at the ski resorts. In Moroni it's the turkey farms," said economic and business bureau senior economist Pamela Perlich.
Even among the state's largest immigration segment, the demographic face is changing. Transplants from Mexico continue to make up the largest number of Latino newcomers. But increasing numbers of South Americans are also arriving, bringing with them different skills and levels of education.
"Now what you've got is a real interesting mix," said Lee Martinez, a Latino business consultant and member of the state's population estimates committee. "What you're seeing now is more of an educated sector, rather than an unskilled agricultural labor sector."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)