WASHINGTON - One of every seven people in the United States is Hispanic, a record number that probably will keep rising because of immigration and a birth rate outstripping non-Hispanic blacks and whites.
The country's largest minority group accounted for one-half of the overall population growth of 2.9 million between July 2003 and July 2004, according to a Census Bureau report being released Thursday.
The agency estimated there are 41.3 million Hispanics in the U.S. The bureau does not ask people about their legal status; that number is intended to include both legal and other residents.
The population growth for Asians ran a close second. Increases in both groups are due largely to immigration, but also higher birth rates, said Lewis W. Goodman, an American University expert on U.S.-Latin American relations.
"If we didn't have those elements, we would be moving into a situation like Japan and Europe ... where the populations are graying in a way that is very alarming and endangering their productivity and endangering even their social security systems," he said.
Most immigrants to the U.S. tend to arrive in their 20s, when many people have children. A far greater percentage of whites than Hispanics is 65 or older; the opposite is true of those under 18.
Immigration has become a volatile issue in Congress and border states, as well as in Georgia and other places where there has been a surge in new arrivals. Critics say lax enforcement of immigration laws has allowed millions of people to enter the U.S. illegally, take jobs from legal residents and drain social services.
The Hispanic growth rate for the 12 months starting July 2003 was 3.6 percent compared with the overall population growth of 1 percent.
The growth rate was 3.4 percent for Asians, 1.7 percent for native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, 1.3 percent for blacks, 1 percent for American Indians and Alaska natives, and 0.8 percent for whites.
That meant that at the beginning of July last year, the population was an estimated 294 million with the following racial and ethnic breakdown: 240 million whites, 39.2 million blacks, 14 million Asians, 4.4 million native Indians and Alaskans, and 980,000 native Hawaiians and other islanders.
The numbers for all races and ethnic groups do not add up to the total because 4.4 million people listed themselves as having more than one race.
The Census Bureau counts "Hispanic" or "Latino" as an ethnicity rather than a race, so Hispanics can be of any race. The population of non-Hispanic whites indicating no other race increased just 0.3 percent in the past year, to 197.8 million.
"Looking toward the future, we see a different face of the U.S. population," said Audrey Singer, an immigration and census specialist at the Brookings Institution. "But I don't think that's necessarily new. It's a confirmation that this hasn't stopped or changed much."
The size of the Hispanic population and, to a lesser extent, the Asian population, rose in nearly every state over the 1990s. Also, the Census Bureau projected last year that whites and minority groups overall would be roughly equal in size by 2050.
"Sometimes this is portrayed as a problem for the United States - that the ethnic composition of the country is changing and that new people are coming to take jobs," said Goodman, dean of American University's School of International Service.
"My view is just the opposite: increased fertility of young people makes the (social) structure one that is more sustaining of economic production and enables older people to be in a culture where their retirements can be financed."
The Census Bureau estimates population change using annual data on births, deaths and international migration.