The continued growth of the Hispanic population is likely to offset declining immigration when it comes to redrawing legislative districts next year, say election experts.
Census estimates released this week show that lower rates of immigration in recent years seem to have contributed to a lower than expected total U.S. population of about 309 million.
That raised questions about whether the decline in immigration –believed to be the result of high unemployment– would mean a loss of political power for Hispanics if states where Latinos live in large numbers lose congressional seats or consider the Hispanic population less of a factor when they re-configure legislative districts after the release of the 2010 Census results.
But experts on elections and demographics stress that even with a slower growth in immigration, the Hispanic population –which is more than 60 percent native-born– continues to soar.
That is why, they say, states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona with the nation’s largest Hispanic populations, are expected to gain congressional seats.
“Immigration is just one part of the story of the Hispanic population,” said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO. “We have to see what the 2010 Census shows about their total population, what states they are moving to.”
Hispanics number about 45 million, or 15 percent of the population. That is an increase of 10 million over the 2000 total of 35.6 million.
This week’s Census estimate, Gold noted, showed that Hispanics accounted for all the growth in the nation’s youth population in the last decade. Hispanics who are 20 years old and younger make up one out of every four people in that age group, the estimate said.
That suggests a huge potential for a greater political voice for Hispanics, as they turn 18 and become eligible to vote, Gold said.
New Hispanic voters, together with redrawn legislative districts in areas with large Hispanic populations, ultimately should benefit Latinos, Gold said.
"It will be very important that those kids who become voters," she said, "have a chance for their voices to be heard when they choose their elected representatives.”
State legislative and congressional district boundaries are redrawn every 10 years by state officials following the decennial census.
The Voting Rights Act prohibits state and local governments from diluting the votes of minority groups through such actions as, say, drawing district lines that divide minority communities and keep them from having a collective impact on voting for a representative of their choice.
In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a congressional redistricting plan drafted by Texas Republicans to tilt the state’s delegation to their party diluted the voting power of Latinos, in violation of the Voting Rights Act.
Texas could gain four congressional seats, Florida could get two, and Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah and Washington could each gain one.
“In the end it’s Hispanics, I think we’ll see, who are a big part of the reason those states are getting extra seats,” said Daniel Santo-Pietro, a Latino community leader in New Jersey, which may lose a seat.
“In New Jersey, losing a congressional seat may set off redistricting battles,” Santo-Pietro said. “There’s been a change in Latino communities – there’s been a lot of Latino immigrant growth in the southern part of the state.”
On a national level, the Census’s impact on redistricting may be “a wash” for Latinos, at worst, said Santo-Pietro.
“Even though New Jersey might be losing a seat,” he said, “states with some of the largest Latino populations are gaining.”
In the meantime, Latino civil rights groups say they will be closely watching the Census 2010 results when they are released in detail after February. On Dec. 31, the Census will release state population totals.
NALEO will be in several states that have large Latino populations, urging Latinos to attend redistricting hearings.
“Legislators hold these hearings so they can get testimony from the community that will help them see how to draw the district,” Gold said. “We’re going to really be keeping an eye on this.”
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.