updated 9/17/2003 3:59:01 PM ET 2003-09-17T19:59:01

The nation’s Hispanic population is keeping up its explosive growth of the 1990s, led by states in the South and West, the first detailed Census Bureau estimates since the 2000 national head count show.

ANALYSTS CITED higher birth rates for Hispanics and a continued influx of new immigrants looking for jobs — even during a period when the U.S. economy slowed — as key reasons for the increase.

Georgia topped the list of states with the fastest-growing Latino populations, adding nearly 17 percent between July 2000 and July 2002 to reach 516,000 residents, according to Census Bureau estimates being released Thursday. North Carolina’s Hispanic population grew by 16 percent, while Nevada, Kentucky and South Carolina were next.

“Hispanic immigrants are coming here for jobs and quality of life,” said University of Georgia demographer Douglas Bachtel. “They are taking jobs that a lot of Americans don’t want, like construction, landscaping and in the service economy.”

CALIFORNIA NO. 1

California still has the largest number of Hispanics with 11.9 million, about one-third of its total population, followed by Texas, New York, Florida and Illinois.

Los Angeles County had the largest population of Hispanics among counties (4.5 million), and Webb County, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, which includes Laredo, was the county where Hispanics comprised the highest proportion of the population (95 percent).

Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority group. The Census Bureau released a report in June that found the Latino population stood at 38.8 million, an increase of almost 9 percent in the two years ending July 2002. That was four times the growth rate for the U.S. population overall and about 14 times greater than the rate for non-Hispanic whites.

The government considers “Hispanic” an ethnicity instead of a race, so people of Hispanic ethnicity can be of any race. In 2000, the Census Bureau for the first time allowed people to identify themselves by more than one race.

Between 2000 and 2002, the Hispanic population had an annual growth rate of 4.1 percent, slightly lower than the 4.6 percent annual rate of the 1990s, according to an analysis of the data by John Haaga, a demographer with the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau in Washington.

New Latino immigrants continue to be drawn beyond traditional gateway states like California, New York and Texas and into places in the fast-growing South and West, as well as rural parts of the Midwest where jobs on farms and in meatpacking plants are available, University of Michigan demographer William Frey said.

The Hispanic Community Support Center in Duluth, Ga., a Gwinnett County suburb of Atlanta, gets 300 visits a week from day laborers looking for jobs, said its founder, Maria Garcia.

‘RISKING EVERYTHING’

“People in Mexico make so little money, they are risking everything for a little bit more in the United States,” she said. About 87,000 Hispanics live in Gwinnett County, up one-third between 2000 and 2002.

As the population grows, Hispanics are becoming a more influential and desirable market.

Tomas Bialet said he started a Spanish-language newspaper in Cottonwood, Ariz., about 100 miles north of Phoenix, because of an influx of Hispanics taking jobs in construction and at luxury resorts and tourist destinations.

Bialet said the northern Arizona area is experiencing problems found in other fast-growing communities where immigrant Hispanics locate: lack of affordable housing, schools unprepared to teach students with limited English and workers who entered the country illegally and lack documents necessary for work.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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