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‘Minority’ now a misnomer in West Valley City, census data show

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WEST VALLEY CITY — West Valley City is the first Utah metropolis to become home to mostly racial minorities, according to newly released population data.

"It is the multicultural, multilingual, multiethnic Utah. It's just leading that change that's really sweeping the state," said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

Last year, 51.4 percent of residents in Utah's second-largest city identified as Hispanic or non-white, according to estimates released late Wednesday from the U.S. Census Bureau. The American Community Survey's one-year snapshot has pointed to a slight majority of racial minorities in West Valley for three years in a row, indicating the change is not just an anomaly.


"It's the real deal," Perlich said. "We've got confidence that's happening."

West Valley City Councilman Jake Fitisemanu said he is "pleasantly unsurprised" by the demographic shift.

"If you're on the ground, if your kids go to school in West Valley, if you're walking around the mall in West Valley, it's kind of apparent, anecdotally, that there are a lot of ethnic minorities out here." He believes the data confirm West Valley has drawn newcomers and retained longtime residents because it's a good community to live in, noting his city has logged record job growth for three years running.

"This is a stable place where folks have been forever, and it's also a place that's welcoming for folks who are just getting their foot in the door for the American dream," he said. "We don't need to be afraid of diversification in our country, because it's here happening in our own backyard, right here on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, and it's working really well."

Wayne Pyle, West Valley city manager, agreed, saying the city has sought to keep pace with the changes in part by hiring more employees who speak the same languages as residents and working to recruit police officers who reflect growing diversity in the city.

The longterm trend has been steady. In 2005, for example, West Valley's minority made up 38 percent of its population, according to the same census survey from that year.

No single ethnic enclave is responsible for the shift.

West Valley has historically been home to the largest per-capita Pacific Islander community outside of Hawaii, Perlich noted. But Latino families and others from southeast Asia and northern Africa, including refugees, also call the city home. And they share their neighborhoods with mixed-heritage families, as well.

Affordable housing, rental units and proximity to jobs and colleges have helped to drive the growth, Perlich added.

Still, the city's roughly 70,000 minorities are a small share of Utah's 3.1 million people. Even though the state also is increasingly diverse, just over 1 in 5 of Utahns — or 21.7 percent — is a minority, according to the figures released Wednesday.

"The data drive home the point that we really don't get the full picture just by looking at the state average," Perlich said. "We really need to zoom in."

Smaller, more rural communities in Utah have long been home to mostly non-white residents, many of them American Indian, but West Valley is the first larger, urban community to tip, Perlich said. The one-year data release allowed Perlich and her team to analyze 10 Utah cities — those with populations of 65,000 or more.

An hour north of West Valley, Ogden has the second-highest rate of minorities, at about 40 percent, followed by Salt Lake City, at roughly 1 in 3 residents.

The newly confirmed change in West Valley intensifies Fitisemanu's concerns that a planned citizenship question on the 2020 Census will discourage many foreign-born Utahns from participating. The 10-year census informs states' congressional representation and how much money each receives from the federal government.

"That is going to really jeopardize or threaten the chances for us to get a complete count," Fitisemanu said of the move by President Donald Trump's administration to add the question.

Zoila Freytes, owner of Vasmin, rearranges the merchandise in her store in the Latino Mall in West Valley City on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018.

Zoila Freytes, owner of Vasmin, rearranges the merchandise in her store in the Latino Mall in West Valley City on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

In the state as a whole, 61 percent of foreign-born residents don't have U.S. citizenship, according to the estimates. The share is higher than the national rate of 50 percent, and higher than most neighboring states. Idaho's rate trails Utah's, at 60 percent.

Though many in the Utah group are college students with visas, Perlich said, others are undocumented.

"It means we've got a lot of foreign-born people who aren't citizens, which is a real concern on the citizenship question for the census," Perlich said. "We're one of those states that's in jeopardy of not counting people."

It's a concern that community groups, Democratic legislators and others in Utah voiced earlier this year.

The Wednesday release also showed the Beehive State continues to follow longtime trends, including an aging population. The median age last year rose to 31 years, up from 30 years in 2016, a change explained in part by aging baby boomers and by Utah families having fewer children, Perlich said.

Utah families also continue to bring in more money. The state's median family income in the one-year period grew to about $77,900, a statistically significant increase from a year earlier, when it was $71,000.

"These are not big changes," Perlich said, "but they're continuous trends that we've been watching."