Immigration, births fuel growth

County's population is getting younger, bringing new needs

By Mike North / mnorth@mercedsunstar.comApril 6, 2013 

MERCED -- A high rate of immigration and births has Merced County's population on the rise despite many residents leaving for other areas.

Census data show Merced County's population grew to 262,305 in 2012 from 259,966 in 2011. That's a nearly 1 percent increase.

The growing number is the result of hundreds of people who've moved in from other countries and a birthrate that was nearly three times as high as the death rate from July 2011 to July 2012.

Most of the 519 immigrants who came to Merced during that time were Mexicans looking for work, said Ramiro Coronado, owner of Immigration Advocate in Merced. If those who entered the country illegally were factored in, that number would easily double, he said.

"There's a lot of people here living in the shadows," Coronado said, noting that he sees people come from Mexico, the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

Those immigrants replaced nearly 1,000 residents who've left Merced County for other areas, according to census data.

"I'm not talking just Mexicans," Coronado said. "A lot of people here think this is a Mexican problem -- you'd be surprised how many Portuguese are out here on dairies."

When it comes to those who have entered the country illegally, in Merced they come from a wide array of backgrounds, Coronado said. Many young adults come to Merced on student visas, or passports from Japan, New Zealand or Canada, but don't leave when their paperwork expires.

Some of those people come to Coronado looking for help and advice. He guides his clients on gaining citizenship.

He said 8,000 to 10,000 people a year use his services.

The influx of immigrants and high birthrate has resulted in a young population in Merced County. With a high teen pregnancy rate, that trend grows upon itself.

The end result is a higher demand on some government entities, such as social service programs.

Laura De Cocker, deputy director of the Merced County Human Services Agency, said her department has taken several steps to address the specific needs of the local population.

"There is a higher demand because we do have a younger population," she said.

Several programs are aimed at parenting, including a fatherhood program that serves as a "boot camp" for new dads to learn about how to be a father, De Cocker said. Those types of programs have gotten a lot more interest in the past couple of years as more young dads seek guidance.

On the other hand, there's an increase in child abuse and neglect investigations, she said.

Other resources, such as food assistance programs, experience increasingly high demand with the younger population, De Cocker said.

The changing demographics have had an effect on schools, some of which have seen increased enrollment.

Merced County Board of Education member David March, whose District 5 covers Los Banos, Gustine and Dos Palos, said he's seen some growth in his area, particularly in Los Banos.

But while the Los Banos Unified School District is growing at a pace of more than 2 percent per year, that hasn't necessarily translated into an expansion of other industries, such as housing.

"How do you explain a growing enrollment when there hasn't been a house built in five years?" he asked.

Some suspect that the conflicting figures mean more people are living together.

Though the Central Valley's population growth has slowed in recent years, many predict that those figures will boom again.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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