Jackie Bong Wright

Jackie Bong Wright's Official Website

Immigrant Growth in the Nation’s Capital

By Jackie Bong-Wright

At the Brookings Institution June 12, 150 representatives from the public and private sectors were surprised to hear the good news that D.C. area immigrants are faring better than those in other parts of the country. Panelists representing a broad spectrum of interests discussed before a packed auditorium the impact of newcomers in the region on the communities where they live.

Significant Gains

Brookings’Audrey Singer described her June 2003 report, analyzing the growth and location of the foreign-born. Using U.S. Census Bureau data, she found that Metropolitan Washington grew by 1.5 million people, or 42 percent, between 1980 and 2000, to reach nearly 5 million residents at the millennium. She revealed that half the immigrant population arrived in the 1990s, and, since 1980, has more than tripled, going from 256, 500 in 1980 to 832,000 in 2000. Most area immigrants live in the suburbs: 30% in Fairfax County, 28 percent in Montgomery County, 13% in Prince George County, and 9% in the District of Columbia.
It was no surprise to those who live here that Singer’s statistics showed a diverse population. Nearly 17 percent of all the region’s residents who were born outside the United States come from 30 origin countries: 39% from Latin America and the Caribbean, 36% from Asia including countries of the Middle East, 12% from Europe, 11% from Africa and 2% from all other countries. El Salvador topped the list of Latinos (12.6% of the total immigrant population) with more than 100,000. Korea and India were the second and third largest groups, with about 46,000 each, or 5.5%. Vietnam ranked fourth at 4.5% with 37,000, while Mexicans ranked 5th with 32,000 immigrants. The remaining ten ethnic groups accounted for about half of the immigrant population.
Singer said that the capital region ranked seventh behind the major immigrant gateways of Los Angeles (3,450,000) ; New York (3,140,000); Chicago (1,426,000); Miami (1,148,000); Houston (855,000); and Orange County (850,000).

Language Ability

The study showed that three-quarters of the region’s immigrants, or 62%, have a good command of the English language, with 17%, one in six, speaking only English. By this measure, Washington boasts the highest share of immigrants who are proficient in English (79%), while Los Angeles, Houston and Miami have rates of 63%. This suggests that many foreign-born work in professions that demand English facility on the job or come from Caribbean, European, or African countries where English is widely used. The highest rates of proficiency are found in Prince George’s County, followed by the District, where 26% and 23.4% respectively speak only English.
However, Singer cautioned that English proficiency is far from geographically uniform among the immigrants. Those who reported speaking English “not very well” or “not at all” accounted for 29% of immigrants in Arlington County, 27% in Alexandria, 24% in the District, 22% in Fairfax, and 18% in Montgomery county. Of greater Washington’s 1.8 million households, 78 percent were headed by English speakers. For the remaining 400,000 households, nearly 20 percent lacked adults who were proficient in English.
Teaching limited English proficiency (LEP) to immigrant children from over 150 countries distributed across jurisdictions in area schools was said to present a challenge. The need for LEP instruction in public schools nearly doubled from 1993 (26,000) to 2001 (54,000). Instruction in English as a Second Language (ESL) for adults tends to occur in high concentrations along major transportation corridors and in areas where recent immigrants are likely to live among their social and familial networks in densely populated apartment buildings and complexes.

Economic Status

Although it was not possible to directly discern the income levels of area immigrants, half live in neighborhoods where households earn more than the median income of $62,216. Census Bureau data show that 10.6 percent of greater Washington’s immigrants live in poverty, compared with 6.8 percent among the native-born. Residential distribution of immigrant poverty shows relatively little clustering, with 18 percent of the District’s immigrants classified as poor and 15 percent in Arlington and Alexandria. Washington’s poverty rate is considerably lower than that of New York, Los Angeles, or Houston, where nearly double that proportion of immigrants lives in poverty.
Singer concluded that these new residents — with their varying educational backgrounds, experiences, and skills — contribute heavily to local and neighborhood economies. They work in high-technology and communication jobs, in construction, hospitality, service positions, and the hospital and health care professions. They are revitalizing commercial corridors with small, mom-and-pop businesses. Their children attend public schools and colleges, eventually joining the labor force. The author noted that the Washington economy remains relatively strong because of the stability of the federal government and associated agencies; the kinds of industrial and occupational sectors that falter during stagnating economies are also those that tend to employ immigrant workers.
From her analysis, Singer reached five conclusions: 1) immigrant growth here has been quick, recent, and large-scale; 2) immigrants live primarily in the suburbs; 3) some immigrant-dense neighborhoods are developing in close-in suburban areas; 4) immigrants are diverse, coming from a broader spectrum of countries than in most other large metropolitan areas; 5) immigrants overall have high levels of English proficiency. Given these distinct and important trends, Singer asked how the region’s government, non-profit, and private-sector leaders should think about and meet the needs of their rapidly changing community.

Panelists Respond

Panelists from the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland responded to the report and shared their experiences in working with immigrants.
Isis Castro, Chairman of the Fairfax County School Board, described the Fairfax program. She said Fairfax County Public Schools had nearly 21,000 limited English proficient (LEP) students representing 120 countries and 100 different languages. The largest language minority population came from Asia, followed by Latin America and the Middle East, totaling 48,000 students. Students spend an average of three years in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, progressing through beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. In addition, with the No Child Left Behind legislation, all students were required to be tested yearly in language as well as content areas.
Another panelist, Handel Mlilo, Coordinator of Washington’s Center for the New American Community, stressed that newcomers were a hard-working, tax-paying, and law-abiding lot. They had made a difference in every corner of the metro region and in every sector of the local economy. He wanted them to take an active role in civic life. He cited the need for more attention to immigrant and worker rights.
The Executive Director of CASA Maryland, Gustavo Torres, said that although most immigrants work hard and do well, there were some who fell through the cracks. Torres provides legal and social services for the numerous undocumented day laborers and domestic immigrants in the metro area. Some, he said, were being abused by their employers and confronted with barriers to employment like limited skills, poor English proficiency, and little understanding of American culture and norms. They suffered unique discrimination and exploitation in the workplace. CASA and similar organizations tried to fill the gap with bilingual and bicultural services.
Dr. Thang Nguyen, Executive Director of Boat People SOS, echoed the other panelists by saying that different immigrant groups faced different challenges during their first resettlement periods. Vietnamese who arrived in recent years had been victims of torture under the Vietnamese Communist regime and still suffered post-traumatic syndrome after being incarcerated for years in re-education camps or prisons. Another challenge during the adaptation period was newcomers’ reluctance to trust the banking system. Many continued to deal in cash instead of doing their transactions through financial entities. He said that although the immigrant situation in general was optimistic, local communities should pay special attention to particular newcomer groups.