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Immigrants Make Way To Suburbs, Small Towns

Look For Affordable Housing, Jobs, Safe Communities


January 02, 2011

Mirroring a pattern seen in some other parts of the country, many immigrants in Connecticut have moved beyond its urban centers in search of jobs, affordable housing and safe communities, bringing with them what local officials say are both opportunities and challenges.

Fairfield County remains a stronghold for immigrants, but they are increasingly spreading across the state, moving to the suburbs and even small towns, according to numbers recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Of the approximately 446,000 immigrants in the state, about 22 percent live in Stamford, Bridgeport and Danbury, with Hartford and New Haven also ranking in the top five. Overall, the number of immigrants in Connecticut has increased just over 20 percent from 2000 to 2009.

"The trend for them is to move off to the suburbs, where there's new housing," said William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It's a combination of jobs and connections, whether family or friends."

The new arrivals have helped boost local economies and revitalize downtowns. At the same time, schools that were once relatively homogeneous are scrambling to provide services to students from dozens of countries.


Norwich, for instance, with a population of about 36,000, has seen its immigrant population double since 2000, to about 4,800.

Lee-Ann Gomes, a supervisor in the city's human services department, said the city has seen an explosion in immigration in recent years, especially from China and Haiti.

Gomes helped form a Newcomer Committee earlier in the decade to coordinate services for immigrants, who she said have "totally enriched our community." Assimilating the new arrivals, however, has put additional demands on both the local government and school system.

"It's a mixed blessing," Gomes said. "There are needs and challenges."

Norwich City Manager Alan H. Bergen said immigrants have helped the local economy, opening new businesses and patronizing existing ones. Voters recently approved a $3.6 million bond package to revitalize downtown by providing rent subsidies, code upgrades and low-interest loans, a process in which immigrants will play a key role, Bergen said.

Immigrants also bring a less measurable but very visible benefit to the city, he said.

"The new cultures give us an opportunity to re-create ourselves and become a city that is diverse and exciting," Bergen said. "It gives us a uniqueness other cities may not have."

The changes have been reflected at Norwich Free Academy, an endowed, independent school that serves Norwich and several surrounding towns as a high school.

James Landherr, director of research and strategic partnerships at the school, said 10 years ago there were 59 students there classified as Asian American, many of whom were born in the U.S. The school, which has 2,366 students, now has 146 students classified as Asian, most of whom were born overseas. There also are more than 100 students from Haiti.

In all, the school has students from 42 countries who speak 30 languages. Beginning, intermediate and advanced English language classes are offered and the school recently used a $23,000 grant to purchase a computer program to help students and their parents learn English.

"It's always a challenge," Landherr said of dealing with such a diverse population.

But the new students also have become part of the fabric of the school, he said. In cooperation with a community group, the school shows foreign language films once a month. And the academy is organizing a fundraiser next month for earthquake victims in Haiti.


Without the influx of immigrants, the state and many cities and towns would have lost population in the last 10 years.

"From an economic development sense, it's clear that if Connecticut's population is going to grow, it will grow as a function of immigration," Manchester General Manager Scott Shanley said.

With a total population of 55,740, Manchester's immigrant population increased from 4,650 in 2000 to about 6,800.

"We benefit from it because it tends to keep our workforce younger, which is a positive for a community," Shanley said. "They make money and pay taxes."

In recent years in Manchester immigrants have opened a spate of businesses in store fronts downtown or in strip malls that may otherwise have been vacant.

Sheen Mathew, 36, grew up in India and moved to the U.S. five years ago, first working in New York, then moving to Norwalk, which has the sixth-highest number of immigrants in the state, including an established Indian community. He wanted to open an Indian restaurant and first looked at Fairfield County, but decided there was too much competition there already.

Mathew said he soon realized there was a growing Indian population in the center of the state. He and two partners opened a restaurant in Vernon in 2008 and five months ago he opened his own place, IndiGo Indian Bistro, in the Shop-Rite Plaza on Spencer Street.

The commercial rent in Manchester is affordable, he said, and he and his wife bought a house in Ellington, attracted by good schools for their young son.

"There are opportunities here," said Mathew, who wants to open a chain of restaurants. "If you work hard, you can become something here."

Still, new residents require additional services. Many local governments struggle to provide translation services. Even some basic information, such as recycling instructions, must be printed in many languages. Shanley said local libraries, which traditionally help immigrants assimilate, need to provide materials in many languages.

The latest numbers were made public last week as part of the American Community Survey, the biggest single data release in the Census Bureau's history. Unlike the decennial census, which attempts to count every person in the country, the survey generates estimates based on interviews with about one in 10 people.

The survey has been conducted yearly since 2005, but until now provided only information about large geographic areas, such as states and big cities that provided a large enough sample for reliable estimates.

In a new initiative to provide insights into smaller areas, surveys were taken between 2005 and 2009, providing a large enough database to make estimates. Although the margin of error increases for smaller areas, such as rural towns, census officials say it still provides information that can paint a portrait of the entire country.

For many local officials, the new numbers confirm what they have witnessed firsthand in recent years as various factors have influenced migration.

The fact that Norwich is sandwiched between two huge casinos has shaped population patterns. Bergen, the city manager, said the casinos employ many immigrants, some who used to commute to their jobs from New York City. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, many of them decided to move to Norwich, he said.

"It really scared a lot of people," he said.

Gomes said the Haitian community grew in part because of the work of Haitian Ministries for the Catholic Diocese of Norwich, which was established in the 1980s.

Deep River

Deep River, population 4,610, saw the number of immigrants in town grow from 71 to 542 from 2000 to 2009. First Selectman Dick Smith, who has held the post for 21 years, said immigrants find the town attractive for reasons that could appeal to anyone.

"Deep River is a nice, small town," Smith said. "It's safe and has excellent schools."

He said some characteristics make it particularly suited to immigrants. Unlike surrounding towns, Deep River has a relatively large stock of apartments with reasonable rents, including one large complex. Smith said houses also are affordable to immigrants as they become more established.

"Some have bought houses and brought relatives over," Smith said.

Although the sample size in the survey is too small to reflect accurately where the immigrants are coming from, Smith said based on those he has met, many come from Honduras, Mexico, Colombia and Poland. Many work as framers, painters or laborers in residential and commercial constructions or as cooks in restaurants.

There also are two large manufacturing companies downtown, with smaller manufacturing companies nearby. People without cars can live near where they work, Smith said.

Many local officials say the new arrivals have been welcomed in their communities, but tensions have surfaced in some places, particularly over illegal immigration.

The Census Bureau does not distinguish between legal and illegal immigrants. Although it's difficult to quantify, some cities have experienced huge influxes of illegal immigrants from Latin America.

In Danbury, some long-term residents were alarmed when large numbers of Brazilians and Ecuadoreans moved to the city earlier in the decade, leading the city to have two of its police officers trained to enforce immigration laws under a controversial federal program.

New Haven saw a rapid increase in its immigrant population and embraced it, creating a city identification card it made available to all of its residents, legal or not. Its neighbor, East Haven, had a 20 percent increase in immigrants, but some activists say the town, with a population of 28,500, took the opposite tack.

Allegations surfaced in 2009 that East Haven police were harassing Latinos, particularly with traffic stops. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating and a group of immigrants has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.

At Norwich Free Academy, Landherr said there have been problems along the way as the school has worked to assimilate students from so many countries and cultures, but issues are worked out as they arise. In the long run, he said, the effort is worth it.

"It's a very rich place," Landherr said. "Kids go off to college and come back and say, 'I'm better prepared to deal with differences because I lived it.' "

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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