Three out of four Oklahoma counties showed increases in the last decade in the number of residents who were born outside the United States, with much of the growth coming in the Panhandle, western Oklahoma and metropolitan counties.
Nationally, Oklahoma ranked 32nd in the percentage of foreign-born residents, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey from 2005-09.
About 5 percent of Oklahoma's 3.75 million residents were born outside the United States. That compares to about 27 percent for California and almost 15 percent for Arizona. At 1.3 percent, West Virginia rounds out the bottom of the rankings.
An estimated 12.5 percent of the nation's residents — 38.5 million people — were born in a foreign country, the Census Bureau said.
The latest estimates come amid a continuing political debate at the Capitol and across the country about immigration. The Census Bureau does not ask about the legal status of immigrants, meaning the foreign-born estimates include both documented and undocumented immigrants and naturalized citizens.
Foreign-born residents come from all over the world to Oklahoma and have a variety of skills, said Deidre Myers, director of policy, research and economic analysis with the state Commerce Department. Manufacturing, agricultural processing, technology and service industries are all attracting immigrants from foreign countries, she said.
Among Oklahoma's estimated 190,000 residents who were born in foreign countries, 60 percent were from Latin American countries, the Census Bureau said. Another 24 percent were from Asian countries. About 8 percent hailed from Europe.
“Oklahoma is a dynamic economy, so why wouldn't we have people from different areas looking for opportunity in Oklahoma?” Myers said.
Generally, counties west of Interstate 35 had higher rates of foreign-born residents than those in eastern Oklahoma, according to an analysis of census data by The Oklahoman. Exceptions to that were Tulsa County in the northeast and Marshall County on the state's southern border.
“You see a lot of growth in the foreign-born population in those areas that have a very strong agricultural and manufacturing presence; of course we see this in western Oklahoma and the Panhandle,” Myers said.
“A second area that people don't often think about is that we've had a lot of foreign-born growth in high-skilled research and development, biosciences, nanosciences and other kinds of very high-tech positions. We're seeing this kind of growth in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Cleveland counties, where you have a university or a very strong knowledge-based industry cluster.”
Texas County, which held the state's top spot in foreign-born residents in 2000, stayed at the top in the latest estimates. The foreign-born population in that Panhandle county rose to 21.3 percent from 16.9 percent in 2000. Many immigrants have been drawn to hog processor Seaboard Corp., which has more than 3,000 employees at its Guymon plant.
Remaining in second place was another Panhandle county, Cimarron County, which had 11.5 percent of its residents from foreign countries in the 2005 to 2009 Census estimates. That's up from 10.3 percent in 2000.
Blaine County appeared to show the largest growth in foreign-born residents in the last decade. An estimated 9.5 percent of its residents were born outside the United States. That compared to 3.5 percent in 2000.
Craig Cummins, superintendent of Watonga Public Schools, said many recent immigrants have found work on oil and gas rigs. Elsewhere in the county are dog food and gypsum wallboard factories.
“Our Hispanic population is our fastest-growing ethnic group,” said Cummins, who has been Watonga superintendent for eight years. “It is a challenge sometimes for classroom teachers, but the kids are accepted and they do give back to the school system. They provide some cultural experiences and they participate in our extracurricular activities.”
Farther south, Marshall County's percentage of foreign-born residents rose to 7.4 percent in the latest estimates, up from 5 percent in 2000.
Light manufacturing for horse trailers and agricultural equipment has been a steady part of the industrial base in Marshall County for a number of years and has attracted immigrants, said Chris Moore, a board member with the Marshall County Chamber of Commerce.
Moore, a personal banker at Landmark Bank in Madill, said several tellers speak Spanish to help customers.
“We have a large Hispanic customer base, and not having Spanish-speaking employees, we would definitely lose that,” Moore said. “It's important to our business now.”
Foreign-born residents in Oklahoma
Top five counties
Bottom five counties
Note: The Census Bureau does not ask about the legal status of immigrants. Estimates include documented and undocumented immigrants and naturalized U.S. citizens.