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Changing South Is at Intersection of Demographics and Politics

The South is the fastest-growing region of the country but the data shows that the scope and sources of population growth vary considerably across the South with significant consequences for future elections.

Rosaura Lima and her family live in Bowling Green, Ky. Lima, who is from Guatemala, says her children will have a better life because they were born in the United States. , Teresa Puente

Changing South Is at Intersection of Demographics and Politics
A Changing Southern Landscape

Changing South Is at Intersection of Demographics and Politics
By Nate Cohn
New York Times
August 14, 2014

The South is the fastest-growing region of the country, and Democrats are hoping that a flood of Northern expats and demographic change will allow them to turn red states to blue at a fast enough pace to counter the region’s growing share of the Electoral College.

Democrats have already made big gains in some Southern states, like Virginia and Florida. But Republicans have held firm or even made gains of their own in other states, including Texas, a state where demographic and migration trends seem as if they should be helpful to Democrats.

The explanation for the varied pace of Democratic gains in the South, along with the transformation of Dixie more generally, is illustrated with census data compiled by my colleague Rob Gebeloff for The Upshot’s project on migration.

The data shows that the scope and sources of population growth vary considerably across the South. The migrants moving to Tennessee and Texas bear little resemblance to those moving to Virginia or Florida, and Democrats will struggle to make similar gains so long as that’s the case.

In 1900, the South was an impoverished backwater, and that wasn’t lost on the era’s migrants. People in the Northeast moved west, to the Great Lakes or Pacific Coast. Immigrants followed the same path. Ninety-five percent of Southerners were born in the South.

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None of that is true today. The gap between the South and the rest of the country has closed, and the region’s population is booming. The Southern-born share of Southern residents has declined as a result, but the pace of change is uneven across the region. In Florida, people born outside the South represent a majority of the population, but in low-growth and more rural states like Mississippi and Louisiana, 90 percent of the population remains Southern-born.

The relative contributions of immigration and domestic migration, the two drivers of the decline in the Southern-born share of the Southern population, also vary across the region.

Domestic migration plays a larger role in the Mid-Atlantic States, while foreign-born residents have become nearly one-fifth of the population in Texas. Florida leads the way in both types of migration.

The relatively small contribution of domestic migration to Texas’ population growth is part of why the significant decline in the state’s Southern-born population hasn’t brought Democratic gains like those in Virginia or Florida. These foreign-born residents are generally Democratic, but they’re disproportionately ineligible to vote. Just 43 percent of foreign-born residents (and only 32 percent of those from Latin America) are naturalized citizens.

The somewhat lower contribution of domestic migration means that the native-born population in Texas is likelier to be born in the South than are their counterparts in other fast-growing states like Florida, where Democrats have made their biggest gains. Indeed, people born in the South still represent at least 80 percent of native-born residents in every Southern state except Virginia, Florida and the Carolinas.

The larger share of native-born Texans born in the South is somewhat at odds with the conventional wisdom of the state’s explosive population growth. The story line of Sun Belt growth doesn’t usually make big distinctions between the types of migration to different states and, to the extent that it does, it usually holds that Texas’ growth is driven by an exodus of migrants fleeing high home prices and high taxes in the Northeast and California.

There are certainly northeastern and West Coast expats in Texas: 1.6 million of them, in fact, including more than 600,000 from California. But although those numbers may seem impressive, they’re relatively low compared to the state’s population. The pace of migration is also low in comparison with the states along the Atlantic, which are proving to be more appealing destinations for coastal migrants. There are three times as many northeastern or Californian expats in Florida as there are in Texas; there are nearly as many in Virginia as there are in the far larger state of Texas.

The difference is particularly pronounced among Northeasterners: There are four times as many Northeastern expats in Florida as there are in Texas; there are more Northeastern expats in Virginia and North Carolina than in Texas; and there are nearly as many Northeastern expats in Georgia, at 816,729, as there are in Texas, at 929,692.

But in Texas, population growth is propelled by high in-state birthrates, a growing foreign-born population and domestic migration from just about everywhere in the country except the heavily Democratic Northeast, including elsewhere in the South. That makes Texas much more like Alabama or Tennessee than Florida, Virginia and North Carolina, which are the only three Southern states where there’s more migration from the Northeast and West Coast than from elsewhere in Dixie.

The proportion of native-born residents from the South versus the Northeast and California roughly parallels President Obama’s share of the white vote in 2012, which was lowest in states like Mississippi and Louisiana and as high as the mid-30s in Virginia and Florida. Those tallies are good enough for victory in states where nonwhite voters make an above-average contribution to Democratic tallies, as is the case across most of the South.

Democrats were able to become competitive so quickly in states like Virginia and North Carolina because they combined a growing nonwhite share of the electorate with gains among white voters, particularly in postindustrial metropolitan areas full of Northern expats. Without additional gains among white voters, Democrats will be forced to wait a long time for the children of foreign-born residents to carry them to competitiveness in Texas, a state that Mr. Obama lost by 17 points in 2012, and where there isn’t a flood of Democratic-leaning voters from New York to bail them out.

A Changing Southern Landscape
By Teresa Puente
Chicago Reporter
August 14, 2014

Teresa Puente drove across the U.S. this summer blogging about diverse people and places and capturing day-to-day life in America. Here are three dispatches from the South, where the Latino population is growing. Read about all the people she met at her Chicanísima blog at Chicago Now. 

Rosaura Lima, 40, played with her children in the parking lot of a budget hotel in Morristown, Tenn., the boyhood home of Davy Crockett

She lives in Bowling Green, Ky., with her husband, Roman Martinez, 43, who travelled 250 miles to Morristown for a construction job.

She was trying to keep the kids busy, as her husband was sick in a local hospital. He woke up with a giant welt on his arm that doctors told her may have come from a bug bite.

But he couldn't drive back home until the swelling stopped.

“The doctor said it was serious,” she said.

Complicating matters, the couple does not have health insurance and they are undocumented.

Rosa is from Guatemala and her husband is from Mexico. Even though she has lived in the U.S. more than 10 years and her husband more than 20 years, there is no way for them to gain legal status without immigration reform. They don't have a family member or an employer who can sponsor them.

They are among the growing Latino population in southern states. In Bowling Green, the Hispanic population grew by 89 percent from 2000 to 2010. Today, there are 3,749 Hispanics in the town—6.5 percent of the population. Latinos make up around 3 percent of Kentucky’s population.

In Tennessee, Latinos are around 5 percent of the population, double what it was in 2000

Rosa’s family tried to gain legal status and paid $8,000 to a lawyer last year.

"He cheated us," she said.

So they work under the table. She works at a fast food restaurant.

Rosa has hopes for her children, all born in this country.

“They are U.S. citizens so they will do better than us,” she said.

Sussey Huskey
Sussy Huskey, who moved to North Carolina from Costa Rica, runs a successful Latin dance studio and a café in the Blue Ridge Mountains. [Photo by Teresa Puente]

Sussy Huskey, 36, moved from Costa Rica to North Carolina 15 years ago.

She was recruited by Harrah's to work at a casino on an Indian reservation in Cherokee.

"The Cherokee people gave me a nice welcome because of my dark skin and hair," Huskey said. "At first they thought I was Cherokee too."

But many of the whites in the town where she lived, Whittier, had never met a person from Costa Rica before. They asked her questions like, "Do you wear clothes?" and "Do you have electricity?"

Hispanics are around 9 percent of the population in North Carolina, an increase of more than 111 percent since 2000.

Huskey shares her culture with the people in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Two years ago she decided she wanted to teach salsa and other Latin dance classes, including Zumba, in her community.

At her Studio Rumba, as many as 60 people take her classes each day. Some of them are the same people who held stereotypes about Latin America.

"People have opened up their heart to my culture," Huskey said. "It's amazing to see black, white and Indian people all dancing together in one room."

Huskey was married to a Cherokee man and she has a 9-year-old son, Ian.

"I want him to be proud of his cultures," she said of his dual heritage.

She divorced and now has a boyfriend of Chilean and Spanish heritage. They work together at the dance studio and the Fusion Café, which they opened two months ago near the reservation. She is doing so well that she left her job at the casino.

At the café, they serve everything from empanadas to chicken salad and Costa Rican coffee.

"We really are a fusion," she said.

Manuel Casados
Manuel Casados came to the U.S. as a guest worker from the Mexican state of Veracruz, where warring drug cartels have made life too violent, he says. [Photo by Teresa Puente]

Manuel Casados, 50, came to the U.S. 10 years ago with a guest worker visa to pick tobacco in North Carolina.

"It was really hard work, a hard life," Casados said. "There are no breaks and you are hunched over all day."

He left that job after one season and moved to the Atlanta area, where he started doing odd jobs and construction.

On weekends, he works at a flea market north of Athens, Ga. Around half the vendors there are Latino and they sell everything from dried chiles and other spices to caged chickens and CDs of mariachi music. It's called "Georgia's largest flea market" but it resembled a tianguis, or open air market in Mexico.

In Georgia, Hispanics are now 9 percent of the population, around 850,000, an increase of more than 96 percent since 2000.

Casados sells soccer shirts representing teams from Mexico, England, France and Italy, as well as shot glasses and Mexican trinkets.

"In one week I can make $80 in Mexico. But here I can make as much as $120 a day," he said. "It's not easy but enough to live on and send something back home."

His visa expired and he has stayed in the U.S. despite the threat of deportation.

His home state of Veracruz lives with warring drug cartels and the federal government has sent police to try and control the situation. Nine journalists also have been killed in that state over the last three years for reporting on the drug war.

"In Mexico, there is too much violence right now," he said. "I can't go back."

Teresa Puente is an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago