Economic Development

Immigrants and the Suburban Influx

This fall, Parkview High School, in Lilburn, Georgia, was unable to field a ninth-grade football team. That is no tragedy; many schools have never even...
by | November 30, 2009

This fall, Parkview High School, in Lilburn, Georgia, was unable to field a ninth-grade football team. That is no tragedy; many schools have never even played ninth-grade football. But Parkview is different. It is the sports powerhouse of Gwinnett County, the winner of four state football championships in the past dozen years. In 2006, Sports Illustrated named it the fifth-strongest athletic high school in the entire country.

The failure to make up a team was a piece of gossip all over the county within a few days. But few of the roughly 12,000 residents of Lilburn itself were puzzled about why this had happened. Locals knew how much the school had changed in the previous five years. What had long been a mostly white institution with a substantial African-American minority had become a miniature United Nations, the white and black cohorts nearly equaled by students from dozens of countries all over Asia and Latin America. Asians, most of them from India, now make up one-fifth of the student body. They win math competitions, boost the school's SAT scores, and enhance its overall academic reputation. But very few of them play football. "It has regressed some in that respect," admits Charles Bannister, the chairman of the county commission. "Academically, it hasn't."

There's nothing remarkable about a school or even a small town undergoing rapid demographic change. What's remarkable is that it's happening in Gwinnett County, the sprawling boomburb of nearly 800,000 people to which huge numbers of middle-class white families moved in the 1980s and 1990s to escape the turmoil of urban life.

These people didn't just move a short distance beyond the Atlanta city limits: Much of Gwinnett lies more than 30 miles from Atlanta's downtown. It is a land of endless subdivisions, shopping centers, cul-de-sacs and oversized garages, a place that not long ago seemed destined to be homogeneous for a generation to come. In 1990, Gwinnett was 91 percent white. Now, it is a different place altogether. "Gwinnett as a whole," says Bannister, "is becoming a majority-minority group of people." In fact, it already is one. In the U.S. Census Bureau's most recent American Community Survey, released this fall, the white population was down to 49.9 percent. Marina Peed, an affordable housing developer who works county-wide, says that "there's no lily white anymore anywhere in the county. I doubt if there's a single all-white subdivision in the whole county."

No suburban county as big as Gwinnett has changed so much so fast. But most are changing in a similar way. The immigrants who used to settle in big cities as their first stop in America now are bypassing the cities and going straight to the suburbs. And they are not confining themselves to working-class inner-ring suburbs abandoned by blue-collar workers. They are spreading throughout the sprawling suburban landscape. In the Atlanta area, of all the newcomers arriving from foreign countries in the past decade, only 4 percent have settled in the city. The rest have become suburbanites.

National figures clearly show the same trend, albeit less dramatically. In 2005, some 2.8 million people came to this country and found homes in cities. But 4.4 million settled in suburbs. It is no wonder that Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution, one of the nation's leading experts on these issues, refers to "a critical shift toward a suburban immigrant nation."

In Gwinnett, evidence of this transformation is everywhere, but especially in the small towns of Lilburn, Norcross and Duluth. You see it on the Buford Highway, a classic suburban shopping strip whose low-slung mini-malls now are filled with Salvadoran pupuserias, Vietnamese nail salons, and Korean grocery stores. The change is happening at the First Baptist Church in Lilburn, where the schedule one Sunday last month called for worship in Korean at 9:15 a.m.; Chinese and Spanish at 10; English, Ethiopian and Vietnamese at 10:30; Indian at 4 p.m.; Arabic at 5; and English again at 6:15. It is more visible nearby on the Lawrenceville Highway, where an immense Hindu temple, 72 feet high and an eighth of a mile long, sits close to a Walgreens drug store. The temple, known as BAPS Mandir, is a draw for Indian families who want to live close to it, and perhaps one reason why interest in football at Parkview High is falling off.

For Gwinnett's leaders, the surge of immigration presents some interesting challenges. It's made a bit more difficult by the fact that the five-member Gwinnett County Commission is something of an anachronism. The five Republicans who serve now could easily have served on the commission when the county was 90 percent white 20 years ago. All of them are conservative and white; no Democrat or member of a minority group has been elected to countywide office in the past 25 years. And all five current members are facing decisions that their careers and backgrounds did not really prepare them for.

Some of the issues the commission is forced to confront are issues, obviously, of illegal immigration: While most of Gwinnett's immigrants are in the country legally, many are not. Georgia has one of the toughest laws against illegal immigrants anywhere in the country, providing in some cases for their deportation, but it has not been strictly enforced so far. Some Georgia counties, among them Cobb, just west of Gwinnett, have signed up for the 287-G federal program that trains local police to crack down on the undocumented. Some of Gwinnett's small towns have passed their own ordinances to deal with what many residents consider a public nuisance.

But the county commission, with far more power at its disposal, has treaded fairly lightly on immigration issues. This is in part because it is caught between two constituencies. The Republican commissioners traditionally have been close allies of the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, which has been phenomenally successful at attracting new business amid demographic change. And the chamber is unabashedly pro-immigration. "If you don't enjoy and embrace diversity," says Nick Masino, the chamber's vice president, "then get out of the Southeast. Go to Nebraska."

The commission doesn't like to disappoint the business community. But if it sticks too close to the Chamber of Commerce line, it risks stoking up resentment against illegal immigrants that continues to exist among white, middle-class residents. The recent recession has reduced the number of illegal immigrants significantly, and this has toned matters down a bit in the past few months. But there are continuing protests from activists such as Bob Griggs, publisher of the Gwinnett Gazette, who recently told his readers that "illegal immigration costs cities, counties and the state government an estimated $1.6 billion annually." The commissioners can't be sure at any moment how close they might be to a noisy populist revolt.

Illegal immigration is far from the only challenge. Many Gwinnett residents of all colors moved to the county because

of its excellent school system. The system still does well in national rankings, but its two-thirds minority enrollment has placed a huge burden upon it. For example, the constant stream of newcomers, who also move around a lot, has given some of the schools a 50 percent student turnover from the start of the academic year in August to its conclusion in May.

Crime is another new issue. Through the 1980s and 1990s, Gwinnett County was one of the more crime-free places in America. The county-wide incidence of crime is still lower than the national average. But in the past several years, the influx of illegal immigrants has created an underclass that has raised crime rates dramatically in several of the small cities. Last year, one Norcross resident wrote an angry letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution lamenting what had happened to the town. "Illegal immigrants have already broken several laws to get to my neighborhood, and I can attest that their penchant for lawbreaking did not stop at our borders. We have had murders, home invasion and burglaries galore."

It's dangerous to place much credence in the anger of one resident, but no one really disputes that Gwinnett has acquired a crime problem in the past five years. It also has begun to confront the realities of poverty. In 1990, the countywide poverty rate was 4 percent. Now, it is 9 percent, and 11 percent among children. "We are leading the region in the growth of poverty," says Ellen Gerstein, of the Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services.

And while Gwinnett's political leadership prefers not to talk about homelessness, that exists as well. It is not highly visible--homeless people do not generally sleep in cul-de-sacs--but Norcross, especially, is packed with cheap extended-stay motels that house illegal immigrants and their families who have no place else to go. They crowd into the drab motel rooms in large numbers, and some have been known to stay a year or more. "It's almost like migrant workers," says Bucky Johnson, the Norcross mayor. "We don't mind having our share. We've gotten the lion's share."

It would be a mistake to feel too sorry for Gwinnett County. Even in recessionary times, it continues to be a business magnet. In June of this year, NCR, the former National Cash Register Company and now largely a maker of ATM and grocery checkout machines, announced that it would be moving its global headquarters and more than 1,500 jobs from Dayton, Ohio, to Duluth, in Gwinnett County. It was the second Fortune 500 relocation to the county in two years.

Meanwhile, Gwinnett is pressing hard to attract Asian corporations, touting its large Asian population and overall diversity as a reason to do business there. It can boast that its school system, for all the demographic upheaval, remains among the more respected and high-performing large systems in the nation. According to the most recent American Community Survey, Gwinnett County's median household income of almost $67,000 was well above the overall U.S. figure of about $52,175.

In short, Gwinnett County is doing quite well in a number of different ways. But it is nothing like the place that white, middle-class homeowners counted on when they moved there by the thousands in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Why has Gwinnett County experienced such drastic demographic upheaval so quickly? There is no simple answer to that question. Each immigrant group has its own story.

For Hispanics, the story begins with the Olympic Games held in Atlanta in 1996. Those games generated massive construction projects throughout the Atlanta area, both stadiums and athletes' residences, and local leaders felt the only way to get the projects done in time at reasonable cost was to bring in an army of Latino laborers from virtually any place they could be found. "They were not only recruiting Mexicans from the Southwestern states but from Mexico itself," recalls Mary Odem, an immigration scholar at Emory University. Few questions about legal status were asked.

After the Olympics, many of those immigrants had little incentive to leave the area. Gwinnett County was in the midst of a residential building explosion, and Hispanics who had initially settled closer to Atlanta simply moved on to Gwinnett, where the jobs were. The county's overall Hispanic population, which was barely 2 percent in 1990, had surged above 10 percent in the official 2000 Census returns. Given the undocumented status of many immigrants, that probably represented a significant undercount.

Another important influx in the 1990s was Vietnamese. Most of these people were officially refugees, including many who had been senior government officials in Saigon prior to the Communist takeover, and some who had spent part of the previous two decades in jungle detention camps. Churches all over metropolitan Atlanta sponsored them, but large numbers eventually found their way to Gwinnett. They were not, at least at first, an economically successful immigrant group. Many had to settle for entry-level factory jobs, working on auto windshields and air conditioning units. It was work to which most of these newcomers, in their 40s or 50s, were unsuited. There weren't many other options. "You really have no choice," says Lam Ngo, a Vietnamese real-estate agent and community leader, "when you don't have the language and your résumé just says you were a bureaucrat and served prison time."

But as the new century began, many of the Vietnamese had found businesses to operate, most notably the nail painting salons that seem to be on every block on the Buford Highway. "We are taking over the county," one Vietnamese activist joked, "one nail at a time." They also proved to be resolute homebuyers, investing in part for speculation and in part because of their large family size: At one point, Vietnamese in the Atlanta region had an average household size of 4.18, compared with 2.68 for the area as a whole.

The two other large immigrant groups tended to be successful right from the start. Indians are the most numerous of all the Asian-born residents of Gwinnett County. Most came to study or to practice medicine or do scientific or technological research, and taken together, they are an extraordinarily well-educated group of people. Among male immigrants from India, one-quarter hold graduate or professional degrees and more than 70 percent have bachelors' degrees.

But the most remarkable success story among all the immigrant cohorts in Gwinnett County is the story of the Koreans. Unlike the others, they tended to come not directly from Asia but from intermediate stops in the United States, mostly New York and Los Angeles. They didn't show up to build houses or, for the most part, to be doctors or scientists. They came to create businesses and make money, and they have done spectacularly well at both.

While strip malls are a dying part of the landscape almost everywhere in America, they are thriving in much of Gwinnett County because Korean immigrants bought them and maintain them. The billiard parlors and cell phone stores along Buford Highway in Norcross, patronized mostly by Hispanics, are owned almost entirely by Koreans. A large proportion of the beauty supplies sold to African Americans and Hispanics in the entire country are made in small-scale factories along the Buford corridor. Many Koreans refinanced their homes to buy these businesses and strip malls, and they continued to buy them even in the depths of recession. But the strip malls pale in comparison to the county's four massive Korean-owned H-Mart supermarkets. Their produce, seafood and prices are attractive enough that many have acquired a substantial Anglo clientele. The Korean customers began coming in big numbers--sometimes from distant places--when they learned that the stores carried fresh octopus.

There are four Korean-language daily newspapers in Gwinnett County, and two radio stations. Several of the old-line suburban banks now are Korean banks: North Atlanta Bank is part of the Seoul-based Shin-Han banking empire. When it comes to banking, virtually all the depositors are Koreans.

None of this takes into account the single largest minority group in Gwinnett County: African Americans. There has been a modest black population in the rural parts of the county since the cotton-growing days of a century ago, but those numbers have grown substantially in the past two decades, and today nearly 40 percent of Gwinnett minorities are African American. Much of their population growth has been rooted in middle-class flight from Atlanta, and is increasingly dispersed throughout the county. The high-income enclave of Suwanee is home to a growing number of affluent black families, as is Duluth. In general, the African- American community has had little social or political interaction with the foreign-born and has made few efforts to gain political power. "We're not as politically active as we should be," admits Herman Pennamon Jr., the community relations manager for Georgia Power and a longtime player in black leadership circles. "The minority community is not engaged."

A lack of civic engagement is a problem within the immigrant communities, too. "We don't have a lot of diversity in our civic organizations," says Diana Preston, the mayor of Lilburn. "For that matter, we don't have that many organizations." The county has set up a variety of boards to deal with immigrant social-service needs, and there is often a minimum percentage requirement for immigrant participation. But there has been difficulty recruiting immigrants to join the boards and stay on them.

Some consider the emergence of the new ethnic groups as key political players to be merely a matter of time. In most immigrant communities in America, it is the second generation that begins to take politics seriously. That doesn't imply as long a wait as it might seem; among some of the groups in Gwinnett, the second generation already is approaching adulthood.

But there are complications. It is not the same thing as African Americans rising to political power in Atlanta in the 1970s. There are literally dozens of distinct ethnic groups in Gwinnett, and most of them have little to do with each other in the settings where political ties might be forged. "Each minority kind of keeps to themselves," says Norcross Mayor Johnson. "They do business with each other, but when they want to go to church, they want to go to church with people who look like them." The Hispanics and the Asians have very little in common, and even among the different Asian cohorts, there is a general absence of common ground.

The groups do work together on some questions that pose immediate concern to all of them. This year, when the Georgia legislature considered a bill to require that all drivers' tests be conducted in English, a consortium of immigrant organizations joined forces to help derail it. But this is the exception, not the rule. When it comes to immigrants achieving a role in county government that equates to their population in the county, there are few signs of progress as yet.

But the most intriguing question of all concerns Gwinnett's demographic future. The 2010 Census will show a roughly even split between whites and minorities. That raises the issue of whether such a division is sustainable--whether a new round of white flight will take place, into more distant counties such as Jackson or Forsyth, leaving a minority-dominated Gwinnett.

Most political leaders find the white-flight scenario unconvincing. This sort of flight means choosing to live many miles from jobs and amenities, not only those in Atlanta but even those in Gwinnett itself. At present, 58 percent of the people who live in Gwinnett work in the county; relocating further out would mean, in many cases, re-establishing the painfully long commutes that Gwinnett residents have struggled in recent years to avoid. In short, there are few practical locations to flee to. In the words of Chuck Warbington, who runs the quasi-public Gwinnett Village Community Improvement District, "the rubber band of suburban sprawl has stretched about as far as it can go."

The politicians tend to envision--and available statistics would seem to suggest--a different sort of future. The towns of Norcross, Lilburn and Duluth are planning dense development around a future light-rail system, which seems likely to draw white gentrification. The Hispanic population is expected to decline some, based on the absence of a new construction boom. And there probably will be a steady increase in the number of Asians, especially from India and Korea. These demographics would be different in important ways not only from those of 1990 but also from those of 2009.

But of course, nobody really knows. The only certainty is continued change. "Gwinnett County," says housing developer Marina Peed, "isn't really a melting pot. It's more like a petri dish. It's a real social experiment."

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