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Orlando Sentinel

Orlando Area Becomes New Melting Pot A Study Confirms The Influx Of Immigrants

How They Have Adapted And Are Received Is Not As Clear

By Kelly Brewington, Sentinel Staff Writer

February 29, 2004
Copyright ©2004 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved.

In just two decades, the Orlando area has emerged as a major gateway for immigrants, according to a new study from the Brookings Institution.

Central Florida's foreign-born population exceeds 197,119, according to the study, which examined 2000 U.S. census data.

What is difficult to gauge, however, is how these new arrivals are being integrated into society and how long the current trend in immigration is likely to continue.

The figures confirm what can be seen in many Orlando-area neighborhoods -- immigrants are redefining Central Florida from the Caribbean patois spoken throughout Pine Hills to the Dominican-owned bodegas in east Orlando.

Foreign-born residents have migrated to the area to the same degree as they have to larger metro areas such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, according to the study released today. But how they are being received in the post-9-11 tightening of the nation's borders remains to be seen.

"Florida is a lot like California in the sense that everyone is from somewhere else," said Audrey Singer, a visiting fellow at Brookings' Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy and the study's author. "There is still a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment in Florida, as there is in the rest of the U.S."

Because Orlando's immigrant surge is fairly new, it's too soon to say how long it will last, or if Orlando will become the next New York City, she said.

For the purposes of the study, Brookings included Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties in its Orlando-area region.

As schools, governments and businesses try to adapt to this increasingly diverse area, the region's foreign-born residents are beginning to build support networks, mobilize civic participation and assert their rights.

In Orlando, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now has emerged as an advocate for immigrants, participating in the summer's freedom rides around the country to demand rights for immigrants -- both legal and illegal.

ACORN's Pine Hills chapter is pushing local governments to accept a form of identification for Mexican nationals called a "matricula consular," an identification card issued by the Mexican consulate.

Many banks nationwide began accepting the identification for opening bank accounts and were lauded by immigrant advocates for giving people a safe place to keep their money.

But because many of the Mexican nationals lining up for cards were undocumented, immigrant reformists have fought them, saying they only legitimize illegal residents.

But ACORN representatives say the cards help bring a sense of security to communities.

"It will allow the undocumented to be documented," said Tamecka Pierce, a member of ACORN's Pine Hills chapter who is of Haitian descent. "They will be able to get bank accounts and help them do everyday tasks we take for granted."

It's especially important in the Pine Hills neighborhood of west Orange County, Pierce said. The community has changed from a mostly white suburb to one of the most ethnically diverse areas in Central Florida, where West Indian and Hispanic newcomers mix with blacks and some older white residents.

The mix doesn't always mean acceptance, but Pierce hopes to see that grow through neighborhood outreach efforts.

Singer states in the Brookings study that accepting the matricula sends a signal that could promote more integration into the community.

And that integration is crucial in the Orlando area, with its growing mix of immigrants.


The largest immigrant group comes from Mexico and comprises about 9 percent of the area's foreign-born arrivals. The others, in order, come from Haiti, Colombia, Cuba, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Canada, the United Kingdom, Vietnam and Brazil, the study states.

The ethnic mix is akin to that of other cities with more-established immigrant communities, Singer said.

But what sets Orlando apart is sprawl. The region's foreign-born population is more likely to live in the suburbs than in enclaves of the central metro area. That means the impact on schools, social services and transportation can be felt in every corner of the area, Singer said.

"It's something everyone is going to have to deal with," she said.

Entrenched enclaves have not emerged in Orlando to the degree they have elsewhere, but that doesn't mean they won't, she said.

And while enclaves can help people adjust to a new country, they also can keep immigrants more detached, she said. Enclaves in suburbs can have the additional barrier of gated subdivisions that can hinder incorporation into the broader community, she said.

Singer makes recommendations for helping immigrants blend in, encouraging civil engagements in churches, community groups and neighborhood centers.


Evidence that groups want to become integrated into Orlando's culture and society can be seen with the Sociedad Dominicana -- or Dominican Association. For the past 13 years, it has functioned as a tight-knit club for networking and parties, but in the past year it has become more active in civic matters. The group wants a Dominican Consulate office opened in Orlando. The Miami office is the only one in the state.

"We had become weak, and about a year ago we decided we needed to be more civic-minded," said Sonia Hernandez, who was born in the Dominican Republic but worked for 24 years in Puerto Rico before moving to be close to family in Orlando three years ago.

Hernandez, a retired pediatrician, volunteers at the Hispanic outreach organization Latino Leadership, which helps with voter registration, homeownership programs, school tutoring and health education.

"There are so many customs that are different for people arriving here from all over -- Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico," she said. "They all need to be helped. It's very important that they have a place to turn."

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