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Changing face of state seen at county level, where Hispanic numbers soar

WASHINGTON - Joe Garcia looks at the latest Hispanic population estimates for Arizona and comes to a simple conclusion.

"It's safe to say the face of Arizona is changing," said Garcia, the director of the Latino Public Policy Center at Arizona State University.

He is referring to a Pew Research Center report that showed rapid - sometimes skyrocketing - growth of the Hispanic population in all of Arizona's counties from 1990 to 2010.

Mohave County saw a 501 percent increase in its Hispanic population over the 20 years, the biggest percentage increase, while Maricopa County had the largest numerical increase, adding more than 780,000 Hispanics.

Only two counties, Pinal and Gila, had overall population growth that outpaced Hispanic growth in the period, and even they saw sharp increases.

Numbers in the Pew report could include both legal and illegal residents of the U.S., since they were drawn from the Census Bureau, which counts citizens as well as immigrants who are in this country illegally.

Garcia said the changing face of the population is bound to have an impact on the future of Arizona.

"You need to look at the layers behind the numbers," he said.

Those layers include the number of undocumented immigrants who might be counted in the Census numbers, Garcia said. Those immigrants are having children who are U.S. citizens, who will one day be able to vote.

"This is going to change the political landscape of Arizona," said Garcia, who thinks Arizona could change from a red to a blue state by 2030 if current political trends stick.

Jim Chang, Arizona state demographer, said he does not make political predictions, but he does make population predictions and he expects the Hispanic share of the state population to continue to grow.

Hispanics accounted for 29 percent of the Arizona population in the 2010 Census, but Chang said that had already grown to 30 percent by 2012.

"We (demographers) expect the Hispanic percentage to go up a percent point every two to three years," Chang said.

The Pew report said Arizona's Hispanic population was 1.9 million in 2011, giving the state the sixth-highest Latino population behind California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois.

Even though Mohave County saw a large percentage increase in Hispanics since 1990, Chang said Latinos still made up only 15 percent of the overall county population in 2010.

Yuma and Santa Cruz are the only two counties where more than half the population is Hispanic. Santa Cruz was 83 percent and Yuma was 60 percent in 2010.

But David Plane, a professor and demographer from the University of Arizona, said it is hard to predict if the booming Hispanic growth of recent decades will continue or intensify in the future.

"It is not clear if it (the growing Hispanic population) will be at the rate it was," Plane said.

Plane, who studies human migration patterns, said Arizona cities did not see as much growth as East Coast cities saw from immigrants in the 19th century, and that shaky construction and housing markets make him uncertain about future migration to the state.

But even without an increase in migration, Plane agrees with Chang that Hispanic population will grow in Arizona, mostly due to those people who already moved to the state.

"The birth rate is higher for Hispanics and more Hispanics (in Arizona) are in birthing age," Chang said.

Garcia said challenges that currently face Arizona Hispanics like education, employment and immigration will have an impact on the entire state in the future.

"You can no longer separate Latino issues and Arizona issues," Garcia said. "They are now one in the same."

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