WASHINGTON (AP) – The foreign-born population in the United States rose to 33 million in 2002, growing over the previous year at a pace similar to the surging immigration rates of the 1990s, a Census Bureau survey found.

The increase from 2001 of 5 percent – nearly 1.6 million people – came in a struggling economy and at a time when immigration laws were more strictly enforced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

In 2002, more than half the foreign born, or almost 17.3 million, come from Latin America, according to the latest estimates from the bureau’s American Community Survey being released Wednesday. That was up about 7 percent from the previous year.

“The foreign born was expected to grow regardless of the slowdown of the economy and the residual effects of Sept. 11,” said Kevin Deardorff, chief of the bureau’s immigration statistics staff.

Instead the lure of family reunification proves strong, while even a slumping U.S. economy is much better than many of the countries from where new immigrants emigrated, Deardorff said.

Over the 1990s, the foreign-born population grew at a pace of about 1.3 million a year.

The bureau offered no estimate of the country’s undocumented immigrant totals. Census surveys typically do not ask if a person is in the country illegally.

A report in January by the former Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated an illegal immigrant population of roughly 7 million, with Mexicans comprising almost 70 percent.

Marisa Demeo, legal counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the government must be more aggressive in finding and legalizing undocumented immigrants while helping those here legally to obtain citizenship more quickly.

“It’s good for our national security to know who they are and legalize them,” Demeo said.

The American Community Survey is a questionnaire being tested by the Census Bureau as a possible yearly replacement for the 53-question “long form” sent out by the bureau at the start of each decade.

The new survey covers about 62,000 households each month nationwide. The bureau arrives at annual estimates by averaging survey results for each of the 12 months in a year.

Slightly more than one-quarter of the foreign-born population, or about 8.9 million, came from Asia in 2002, up from 8.5 million in 2001.

On the Net:

Census Bureau’s American Community Survey: http://www.census.gov/acs/www/

AP-ES-09-02-03 1924EDT

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