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Miami Herald - November 20, 2001


BY Andrea Elliott and Jason Grotto

More than half of Miami-Dade County residents are now foreign born, according to a Census report released today -- placing the county first in the nation among the major metropolitan areas surveyed.

About 51 percent of Miami-Dade's 2.2 million residents were born in another country, as were an estimated 61 percent of Miami residents, according to the survey, which tracked some 900,000 households in 1,203 counties nationwide last year.

``That's monumental,'' said University of Miami immigration specialist Thomas Boswell. ``That's like passing through a magic threshold. There is no other major metropolitan area that has that high a percentage in the nation. Suddenly you're talking about a majority of the population now.''

The survey also estimates that Broward's foreign-born population is now 26 percent of the county's 1.6 million residents. Broward ranked tenth in the nation in its foreign-born population.

At The Herald's request, the Census Bureau analyzed the data to find Miami-Dade's and Broward's ranks among the 300 metropolitan areas in the survey, which include Los Angeles and New York City and other areas with high immigrant populations.

It appears that the number of Broward residents born abroad has doubled, though the Census Bureau cautions against direct comparisons with 1990 Census numbers because the surveys were conducted differently.

Even as foreign-born populations have grown, so have the proportions of people in Miami-Dade, Broward and Miami likely to be naturalized citizens, as well as those born in Florida.

Those estimates mean that the region is infused with immigrants who are starting families here and applying for citizenship -- making South Florida not just a port of entry but a permanent destination.

Such is the case of the Aguilar family, which moved from Havana to Hialeah to Miramar in the last 13 years, bearing children and securing U.S. citizenship along the way.

``If I'm going to live here why not?'' said Roberto Aguilar, a sales manager for a dollar store supplier. ``I feel like this is my country.''

The numbers show some striking trends, demographic experts say.

The percentage of naturalized citizens rose in all three areas, most markedly in Miami-Dade, which surged to an estimated 23 percent of the population last year, compared to 16 percent in 1990.

The percentage of citizens in the foreign-born population appears to have increased in Miami from 28 percent in 1990 to 38 percent last year, and in Miami-Dade County from 36 percent in 1990 to 44 percent.

Experts attribute the rise to several factors. One of the strongest: Worsening political and economic conditions in Latin America that at first may have seemed temporary, especially in the cases of Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina.


South America alone sent 116,000 people to Miami-Dade in the decade, more than doubling 1990's total to an estimated 215,000 last year, according to the survey and Oliver Kerr of the county planning department.

Other incentives to seek citizenship have included easier access to applications via the Internet and the 1996 immigration law, which barred illegal immigrants from re-entering the country for up to 10 years.

``I've had more demand for citizenship in the last five years than before and really it's based on people making a decision that they do not want to return to their countries of origin,'' said Fort Lauderdale-based immigration attorney Larry Behar. ``People want to become part of the fabric of America.''

Miami has long been a gateway for Latin Americans forging new life in the United States, but the new survey indicates that more of these immigrants are opting to settle locally.

``This place has a future,'' said 32-year-old Argentine Charlie Curestis, a medical supplies exporter who landed in Miami five years ago. He explored other cities but kept coming back.

``We call this el barrio ,'' said Curestis, sitting at a table Friday night outside the bustling North Beach restaurant El Campo Argentino at Collins Avenue and 71st Street -- the heart of what's become known recently as ``Little Argentina.''

In several surrounding blocks, there is an Argentine launderer, an Argentine hair salon, two more restaurants and a bakery.

``One feels comfortable here,'' said Curestis, who founded Club Argentino of Miami -- a group of families that meet for recreation on Saturdays. A resident, he must wait two more years to apply for U.S. citizenship.

``I'm going to have a family here and stay here forever,'' he said. ``I'll always be Argentine but this is my country now.''

The survey also showed a rise in the proportion of people born in Florida, which increased in all three areas, while the percentage of residents born outside the state appeared to shrink. In Miami-Dade, people born outside the state dropped from 25 percent to an estimated 17 percent. In Broward, the percentage went from 59 to 44.


``People are no longer going and coming as rapidly as before,'' said Florida Atlantic University professor Jerry Kolo. ``There are more people staying and those people are going to raise families.''

The survey's most notable trend was the increase, in all three areas, of foreign-born residents. The national average for large counties is an 11 percent foreign-born population, said Kevin Deardorff, chief of ethnic and Hispanic statistics for the Census Bureau.

To demographer Richard Ogburn and others, the increase in in-state birth and foreign-born resident percentages are visibly linked.

``Those are mirror phenomena,'' said Ogburn, principal planner with the South Florida Regional Planning Council. Foreigners are settling in South Florida, having children and becoming political, economic and social stakeholders, he said.

``Governments clearly need to bring these new residents into active participation in the civic activities that keep us all going,'' he said. ``Language and cultural barriers can sometimes make that a more difficult process.''

Perhaps no family better encapsulates the survey's findings than the Aguilars in Miramar.

Roberto and Maria met in Cuba 21 years ago. After moving to Hialeah in 1988, they had two children and attained citizenship.

This year, the family added to Broward's booming foreign- and Florida-born population by leaving Hialeah to buy their dream home in Mariposa Isles, a new Miramar development targeting Hispanic move-up buyers with floor plans that include mother-in-law quarters.

``You will never find in Hialeah a house like this,'' said Maria, 35, as she stood on the sparkling tile floors of the roomy kitchen.

The Aguilars voted in the presidential elections last year. Roberto, 37, had voted in the 1996 elections because his citizenship came sooner, but last year was Maria's first time.

``It was very exciting. It was like `Wow,' '' she said. ``They say every vote counts.''

Herald database editor Tim Henderson contributed to this report.