South Carolina's population grew by 15.3 percent during the past 10 years, but its Hispanic population grew 148 percent.
In Aiken County, that trend was even more pronounced, with a 158 percent increase in the number of Hispanics. Overall the county's population grew 12.3 percent during the decade.
The 2010 Census figures for South Carolina, released Wednesday, confirmed expectations of strong growth. But the 10-year change in its Hispanic population stunned researchers.
"I knew Hispanics as a demographic were up, but this is almost 150 percent," said Jerry Mitchell, a cultural geographer at the University of South Carolina.
Despite the sharp increase, Hispanics still make up only 5.1 percent of South Carolina's total population. In 2000, they accounted for 2.4 percent.
The state's total population is now 4,625,364. Aiken County's population is 160,099.
Mitchell said South Carolina's forestry, peach and poultry industries have attracted Hispanic migrant workers. In some cases they've changed rural community demographics.
"You have a low-wage work force available," Mitchell said. "You can drive into these small towns and see where some of the old boarded-up stores have been turned into Hispanic churches."
The growth in Hispanics doesn't mean illegal immigration has risen, though.
Elaine Lacy, a USC Aiken history professor who has studied Latin immigration in the Southeast, said her research shows many illegal immigrants left South Carolina in recent years because of the recession and the state's rigid immigration law, passed in 2008.
"This growth represents children born to people who were already here," Lacy said. "Hispanics have a high birthrate."
Also, Hispanics have been undercounted in the past because of high mobility, language barriers and mistrust of the process, she said.
Hispanic groups raised awareness of the need to be counted in 2010.
Hispanics living in Aiken, Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Edgefield, Hampton, McCormick and Saluda counties came for many of the same reasons as elsewhere in the state. But Aiken County had one extra draw.
"Aiken County has one of South Carolina's oldest Hispanic populations," Lacy said. "The first Latino families came in the 1980s as undocumented immigrants. They came with the horses."
The immigrants worked as trainers and groomers during the rise of the equestrian industry. They were part of the 2 million illegal immigrants who were granted amnesty across the U.S. in 1986, she said.
Other counties bordering the Savannah River saw their populations grow by less than 10 percent or experienced population losses.
South Carolina's largest gains came along the coast and in some northern counties.
Aiken County's 12.3 percent growth seems anomalous in comparison with its neighbors, but Mitchell saw a pattern.
"There's an interstate highway running through it," he said. "South Carolina is becoming a major hub for distribution centers ... and transportation is driving a lot of this type of growth."