Immigrants changing the face of Charlotte

Charlotte is not what you'd call a stereotypical international community. But it's rapidly becoming one.

With one of the fastest growing foreign-born populations over the last two decades, local immigrants have dramatically changed the makeup of our community.

Since 1990, more than 320,000 immigrants have moved to the area, according to Census Bureau data. Today, some 12 percent of Mecklenburg residents were born in another country.

The most obvious impact can be seen on Central Avenue in East Charlotte, where hundreds of supermarkets, shops and restaurants now serve the local Asian, African and Latino communities.

When Maudia Melendez moved to Charlotte in 1987, she remembers only a handful of different types of ethnic businesses.

"Now you have a Latino restaurant and an Asian store next door," said the long-time Latino advocate. "Instead of Central Avenue, we should call it International Drive. The immigrant community has contributed so much. They've added color and diversity and flavor to the tapestry of our city."

Like many major metropolitan cities, illegal immigration is a major and controversial issue in Charlotte.

The city's rapid growth in the 1990s and early 2000s also helped attract thousands of undocumented immigrants to the area looking for work. The numbers have slowed significantly with the economic downturn.

The majority of Charlotte's immigrant population is here legally - and is also quite diverse.

Nearly 160 different countries are represented by students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

There are more than 850 foreign-owned companies in the Charlotte metro area representing 42 countries, according to the Charlotte International Cabinet.

There are more than 300 international organizations, hosting more than 90 international festivals annually.

Several events - like the annual Greek Festival, the Dragon Boat Festival and Taste of the World - draw thousands of visitors each year.

John Chen, president of the Carolinas Asian-American Chamber of Commerce, said immigrants are drawn to Charlotte for the same reasons as other newcomers: cheaper housing, a nice climate and jobs.

Charlotte doesn't have a "Chinatown" like other major metropolitan cities where Asian immigrants congregate in clusters.

Instead, Chen says, small Asian businesses can be found all over Charlotte.

He said Asian communities tend to spend their free time at ethnic social centers, such as churches, temples and Hindu centers.

Chen says it's a good example of a successful "melting pot."

Immigrants in Charlotte can maintain their cultural heritage through various ethnic activities, but are not trapped by their culture because they don't live in block neighborhoods.

Franco writes about immigration for the Observer.


For more info, go to and click on "Ethnic Clubs & Organizations."