Hispanics numbered 38.8 million as of July 2002. That was an increase of almost 10 percent, or 3.5 million, since April 2000, the Census Bureau estimated Wednesday. During the same period, the national population rose 2.5 percent, or 6.9 million people, to more than 288 million.
Immigration accounted for just over half of the population gain among Hispanics.
The Asian population stood at roughly 13 million in 2002, up 9 percent. About two-thirds of the Asian growth was due to immigration.
The government considers Hispanic an ethnicity, not a race, so people of Hispanic ethnicity can be of any race.
Census Bureau director Louis Kincannon said the Hispanic and Asian growth was somewhat surprising given the economy's slip since 2000. That year's census showed that immigrants, especially Hispanics, surged beyond gateways such as California and Texas and across the Midwest and other parts of the South in search of jobs.
"It is part of the continued growing diversity of this country which strengthens us not only politically but economically," Kincannon said.
He announced the latest figures at a convention of the League of United Latin American Citizens in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Many places that attracted new immigrants struggled to reach out to residents with limited knowledge of English, contributing to lower educational rates among Hispanics or less access to quality health care, said Gabriela Lemus, the league's director of policy and legislation.
Lemus hoped the latest figures would spur new outreach efforts.
"We need to act as bridges between these communities that are isolated and self-segregated and bring them into learning what it is they can do, and what they have access to," she said.
The growth of pockets or neighborhoods of limited English-speaking Hispanics could lessen Hispanics' need to learn English or assimilate into U.S. culture because there would be more Spanish-speaking residents to lean on, said Steve Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies. His group favors more immigration curbs.
The immigration data in the latest report is a net figure generally arrived by subtracting the number of people who left the United States from the number of people who entered the country.
Non-Hispanic whites are the single biggest group, making up seven of 10 U.S. residents. That population rose less than 1 percent over the 27-month span to 200 million.
Hispanics make up 13.5 percent of the total population. In 2001, they passed non-Hispanic blacks in population share. The non-Hispanic black population rose 3 percent during the past two years to 36.6 million, or 12.7 percent of U.S. residents.
It is a mistake for Latinos to view the demographic shift as a contest, said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization. Politically, Hispanics trail blacks in clout because more Latinos are undocumented or younger than 18 and therefore cannot vote, he said.
Non-Hispanic Asians are the next largest minority, making up 4 percent of the U.S. total.
The bureau also released a report with more detailed demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of Hispanics. Among findings about Latinos in the United States:
Tabulating population data by race and ethnicity is something of an inexact science because of the way the government categorizes people. The process became even more confusing in 2000 after the Census Bureau allowed people to identify themselves by more than one race.
About 1.7 million people in July 2002 were identified by the government as black and Hispanic, while 36.3 million said they were white and Hispanic.
The Associated Press has used the non-Hispanic population figures for blacks and whites since data from the 2000 census was released in April 2001. The figures include those of one or more races.
By Genaro C. Armas