With more residents, diversity only intensifies, data show

Back in 2005, a University of Georgia business expert called Gwinnett County the most multicultural market in the state, the center of the melting-pot universe in terms of diverse business opportunities.

Seven years later, and despite a construction bust that's slowed gangbusters development that relies heavily on immigrant labor, Gwinnett's demographic stew is showing few signs of going cold.

It's a far cry from decades past, when the term "diversity" in Gwinnett implied that maybe a Methodist Church stood down the street.

"We don't have any specific data, but look for the Hispanic and Asian populations to continue to grow," said Atlanta Regional Commission spokesman Mike Carnathan. In its 2040 Forecast, the ARC predicts Gwinnett will swell from a current 810,000 to 1 million residents in 2028.

Decades of growth have made Gwinnett the state's most diverse county, and among the most diverse in the Southeast. It's far more diverse than the country as a whole.

Carnathan points to a USA Diversity Index, which assigns a "diversity score" to counties across the nation, gauging the likelihood that two persons chosen at random from the same area will belong to a different race or ethnic group. The closer to 100 a county ranks, the more diverse it is.

At 73.4 percent, Gwinnett ranks well above its metro Atlanta brethren, including Fulton (66.5 percent), DeKalb (67.6), Cobb (64.6) and Clayton (65.3) counties. The United States as a whole has a diversity score of 60, the index data show.

Gwinnett's Hispanic (all races) population dwarfs that of the others. The index counts nearly 160,000 Hispanic residents, almost twice the Hispanic population of DeKalb.

In the last decade, Gwinnett's net population gain outpaced the rest of metro Atlanta by a long shot. With that growth came a cultural blending.

Gwinnett's population was 67.3 percent white in 2000, when Hispanic residents numbered about 64,000, according to Census Bureau estimates. A rise in Hispanic births and new immigrant arrivals has fueled a shift in demographics. Minorities edged whites in 2010 to become a population majority.

The percentage of Gwinnett residents who are Hispanic (18) outweighs the make-up of Georgia as a whole (8.3), Census figures from 2009 show.

But with a diversified job base, the demographic changes in Gwinnett have also brought challenges.

Law enforcement have pointed to an increased need for interpreters over the years as evidence that things aren't how the used to be.

Gwinnett's criminal courts handled more than 2,300 cases requiring interpreters in 2010 -- including 449 separate requests for interpreters speaking languages other than Spanish. Taxpayers foot the bill, at hourly rates up to $50.

Officials have said Spanish is the most interpreted language in Gwinnett, followed by Korean and Vietnamese. All told, court officials fielded requests in 2010 for interpreters of 32 different languages.

Data suggests the number of Gwinnett criminal cases requiring interpreters peaked in 2008, the year before Gwinnett became the largest of four Georgia counties to participate in the 287 (g) program, which authorizes local law enforcement to begin deportation proceedings on arrestees.

Gwinnett is the largest of four Georgia counties participating in the program. Some feel it could be a turning point in the immigrant influx as Gwinnett looks toward 1 million residents.

In its first year, 287 (g) accounted for a 28 percent drop in the total number of foreign-born jail bookings -- or 4,289 fewer inmates compared to the prior year. Whether that was indicative of a nervous exodus of illegal immigrants, showed that those already here were being more cautious, or proved that many had fled due to Recession-related unemployment could not be determined.

The 287 (g) program has been fodder for immigrant rights supporters who've staged rallies and summits in Gwinnett decrying it. Detractors contend the program encourages racial profiling and discourages immigrants from reporting crimes, in fear of being deported.

Statewide, in its first four years, the 287 (g) program had been used to identify more than 15,000 illegal immigrants in Georgia for deportation, officials with ICE said in 2010.

This story is part of the 2012 annual Progress edition, "Moving Gwinnett Toward One Million." To see the complete online edition, click HERE.