Immigrants flow into area
Region's foreign-born spiked in 1990-2000

By Franco Ordonez, Globe Staff | July 24, 2005

Walk the streets of communities in Boston's western suburbs and it's not hard to notice the region's changing demographics. Newcomers from India, China, and Brazil and other Latin American countries are moving in, establishing themselves in places like Shrewsbury, Newton, and Framingham.

The foreign-born population grew 48 percent from 1990 to 2000 in the 37 communities covered by Globe West, which extend from Watertown and Newton west to Boylston and Shrewsbury, north to Maynard and Lincoln, and south to Plainville. The area outpaced the state, which also saw strong growth -- 34.7 percent -- in the number of immigrants.

''Immigration in Massachusetts is reaching levels not seen since the '30s, which was the heyday of immigration," said Ian Bowles, president of MassINC, a nonpartisan think tank that recently released a report on the topic called ''The Changing Face of Massachusetts."

''We're really seeing a modern immigration boom again here," he said. ''You're seeing some of that in the Metrowest area."

The 2000 US Census found that 14 percent of Massachusetts residents were born in another country, the highest proportion in decades.

In Shrewsbury, a magnet for Indians, more than 10 percent of the population in 2000 were foreign-born. In Newton, which has drawn Chinese and Russian immigrants, nearly 20 percent were foreign-born. And in Framingham, home to many Brazilian newcomers, more than 20 percent were foreign-born, the 12th-highest percentage of immigrants in the state.

Bowles said experts believe immigration to the state continues to grow in this decade -- and the growth may be accelerating.

The state's total population grew 5.5 percent, or 333,000, from 1990 to 2000. The state's immigrant population rose by 35 percent, or 200,000 people, during that time.

Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, which was a cosponsor of the report, said that at no other time in the past 150 years, including during the great wave of immigration between 1890 and 1920, has immigration accounted for so much of the state's population growth.

The most prominent new arrivals are Brazilians. Census data from 2000 to 2003 indicate that the largest single group of immigrants during that time -- nearly 20 percent -- were Brazilian.

The Allston-based Brazilian Immigrant Center, a workers' rights group, estimated that roughly 230,000 Brazilians, 70 percent of whom are undocumented, live in the state, a far higher number than the Census Bureau's tally of 36,669 for 2000.

Johan Uvin, vice president for research and evaluation for the Commonwealth Corp., who also worked on the MassINC study, said that without the new immigrants, the state would not have had the labor force to sustain its economy.

''The point is, immigration really matters in our community," Uvin said. ''And it's expected to continue to matter, going forward."

One analyst said the clumping of immigrants from certain countries in specific communities is reminiscent of the way the Irish and Italians settled in the state in the 19th century.

New immigrants, who often arrive in the country alone, traditionally seek out their countrymen for help finding work, places to live, and friends, said Thomas O'Connor, a professor and historian at Boston College who has written and taught on Boston immigration trends.

''The tendency is to cling together for comfort, support, and safety," O'Connor said. ''The natural thing for new displaced people is to immediately seek out groups of people who have all these things in common: language, dress, food, traditions, and so forth."

The percentage of growth in foreign-born population was even more pronounced in some communities where the number of foreign-born residents was small to begin with.

Because of an influx of Russian residents, Ashland's immigrant population grew 77 percent, or from 809 to 1,433, between 1990 and 2000. Natick's increased 55 percent, from 2,044 to 3,168, in that period. Southborough's grew 78 percent, 438 to 778. And in Hopkinton, the immigrant population grew 169 percent between 1990 and 2000, from 321 to 864.

''If you compare 1990 to the 2000 data, we see, yes, that immigrants continue to live in cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts," Uvin said, ''but more and more, the foreign population is moving to the suburbs of those areas. Newton is certainly a good example of that."

Franco Ordonez can be reached at
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