updated 7/7/2005 6:25:27 PM ET 2005-07-07T22:25:27

Nearly 23 percent of all people born in the United States in 2002 had a foreign-born mother — the largest percentage since a wave of immigration more than 90 years ago, a study of birth records by a private nonprofit group shows.

The Center for Immigration Studies said the country has not seen as large a share of its children born to immigrants since 1910, when the number reached 22 percent as shiploads of Italians and eastern Europeans crowded America's port cities.

This time, Hispanics are the driving force, according to the study being released Thursday. Nearly 1 in 10 births in the United States in 2002 was to women born in Mexico. Hispanics, as a whole, accounted for 59 percent of all births by immigrants.

The boom in second-generation Americans is bound to have an effect on the country that is equal to, if not greater than, the sea changes of the early 20th century, said Steven Camarota, the Center for Immigration Studies researcher who wrote the report.

Last large immigration wave curtailed
He said the influx of immigrants in the early 1900s was curtailed significantly by a tightening of entry rules and two world wars, and that no such cutoff appears imminent now.

"It just tells you that we are headed into uncharted territory," Camarota said.

The Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restrictions on immigration, compiled the data from birth records collected by The National Center for Health Statistics. The records include both legal and illegal immigrants but do not indicate where a child's father was born.

Children of immigrant mothers accounted for about 915,800 of the 4 million births in the United States in 2002. By comparison, 228,486 of the 3.7 million births in the United States in 1970 were to foreign-born mothers, or about 6 percent.

What it means for assimilation
Camarota said the growing size of immigrant communities could slow their assimilation into American culture and make it more difficult "to have a cohesiveness of national vision."

Pro-immigration groups rejected that argument.

"For 400 years, immigrants have come to our shores, worked hard, had families and built the most successful nation in history," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

"The notion that we are going to be the one group that does not become American is ridiculous," said Lisa Navarrete, a spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group.

The push of immigrant communities into places that have not previously dealt with waves of newcomers, however, may create some temporary tensions, said William H. Frey, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The greatest changes in recent years have come in places like Gwinnett County, Ga., a part of metropolitan Atlanta that has seen its Hispanic population soar over the past decade. In 1990, about 9.3 percent of all children born in the county had a mother born outside the United States. By 2002, that number had jumped to 41.3 percent.

"There are some communities and state governments that will have challenges," Frey said, including retooling their school systems to deal with students who do not hear much English at home.

Fifteen counties in the United States reported having more than half of all births to an immigrant mom.

The leader was the borough of Queens, in New York City, with 67.7 percent. Other top homes to second-generation Americans included Los Angeles, with 56.3 percent, Miami-Dade County, with 58.9 percent, and Orange County, Calif., with 54.3 percent.

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