February 18, 2011 | Explore Howard | Original Article

Census 2010: Howard County immigrant growth explodes

Gladys Camacho's book club is not your typical suburban gathering, though recently released census numbers suggest it may soon be, at least in Howard County.

Camacho and her literary friends, all of them foreign-born and living in Howard County, meet each week to discuss books in a mix of English and Spanish.

"They're from Spain, from Peru, Argentina and Chile," said Camacho, 41, who was born in Peru and lives in Ellicott City with her husband, Jose Luis Chavez, 44, and their two children.

In Howard County "immigrants have so many possibilities," Camacho said, noting that her two children are always busy with school activities and athletics and enjoy going to public libraries.

Camacho, who moved here in 2002, is just one of 9,239 Hispanics who came to the county in the past decade, according to 2010 census data released last week. As such, she is part of an explosion of minorities changing the face of Howard County.

The Hispanic population, the fastest growing in the county, is now 16,729, a 123-percent increase from 2000 when the Hispanic/Latino population was 7,490.

Over the same time period, the Asian population grew from 18,977 to 41,101 (a 117 percent increase) and the black population increased from 35,353 to 49,150 (a 39 percent increase).

All other minority populations in the county also grew from 2000 to 2010, while the white population dropped from 180,010 to 169,972, a decline of about 6 percent.

In 2000, Howard County was 73 percent white; now, it is 57 percent white.

"What jumped out at me is what we've known all along," County Executive Kenneth Ulman said. "We're becoming increasingly diverse."

Camacho agrees.

"When we moved here, I couldn't find anybody who spoke Spanish," she said. "Now I find it everywhere."

Overall, Howard County's population, now about 287,000, has increased by 15.8 percent, making it one of only eight jurisdictions in the state to have grown by 15 percent or more.

Schools are big attraction

The high-rated schools and low crime rate are what draw people to the county, Ulman said, and coupled with a strong, diverse population, they make a good recipe for economic development.

"We've got a great formula that I'm really proud of," he said.

It's the education part of the formula that lures many immigrants to Howard County, Chavez said.

"The schools are really good here, that's what everybody keeps talking about, and that's the first reason" people move to Howard County, he said. "All the immigrants want a good future for the kids, so they look to the schools."

The public school system, which reached minority-majority status for the first time this school year, is a microcosm of the diversity in Howard, system spokeswoman Patti Caplan said.

"We have gone from being a fairly homogenous population here in Howard County to being extremely diverse," Caplan said. "We are the richer for it because this is such a wonderful opportunity for all of us, but especially for our students to really become citizens of the world. They're going to be so prepared when they leave the school system."

Since 2000, county schools have moved to accommodate foreign cultures, Caplan said. The system has added cultural liaisons, provided interpreters for parent-teacher meetings and now makes nearly all documents available in English, Spanish, Korean and Chinese.

The police department also has made changes, including boosting its bilingual staff, police spokeswoman Elizabeth Schroen said. The department added a multicultural liaison in 2009 and a mobile Spanish interpreter in 2009 to communicate with minorities.

Schroen said foreign-born residents sometimes "might be reluctant to come forward and talk to the police if they have had experienced (bad police relations) where they lived before," and the liaison and multilingual officers help "create a positive relationship."

With the increase in population, however, police have seen an increase in calls for service -- 133,074 in 2009, up from 114,828 in 2000.

To accommodate the volume, the department has opened community policing offices in North Laurel, and the Columbia villages of Oakland Mills, Owen Brown and Wilde Lake and increased the number of officers from 328 in 2000 to 441 in 2010.

On the force there are 15 Spanish interpreters and five Korean interpreters, Schroen said.

Support services

Department of Citizen Services Director Lois Mikkila said that like the school system and police department, other county entities have hired bilingual staff as well.

"We're trying to be responsive to the changes that we're seeing to be able to better serve those folks," she explained.

The department provides funding to nonprofits such as the Columbia-based FIRN (Foreign Born Information and Referral Network), that help make Howard County more attractive to minorities.

"The immigrants here have a lot of help from different organizations," agreed Camacho, who has been assisted by FIRN.

Another one those organizations is the Korean American Association, which helps Asian immigrants overcome language barriers and access county services. The association's president, Sue Song, said her group's liaisons are essential to integrating the Asian community into mainstream Howard County.

"We need very strong voices on behalf of that Asian community to the mainstream," she said. "At the same time, we are expecting the county government and the mainstream (community) to be sensitive of our needs."

Song said the business community has often failed to help the Asian community use its talents and resources to establish new businesses.

Outgoing Howard County Economic Development Authority CEO Richard Story agreed that the county could do more to reach out to the Asian community.

"Certainly in the Asian culture you are seeing a population that is much more internally focused," he explained. "We are trying different strategies to reach to that community, to be able to assist them where we can."

The EDA has an incubator program that assists new businesses, Story said, and the majority of businesses that use it are minority-owned.

Story said the black population is most frequently seeking to build relationships with the EDA. In spite of the spike in the Asian and Hispanic populations, Story said he's not seeing a huge demand for incubation from those groups.

Still, whatever shortcomings there might be, most here praise the county for being a bastion of American diversity.

Changing face of Howard

Population 2000 2010 Pct. Change

White 180,010 169,972 -6%

Black 35,353 49,150 +39%

Asian 18,977 41,101 +117%

Hispanic 7,490 16,729 +123%

Total 247,842 287,085 +16%

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Note: Total includes all other ethnic groups not listed