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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 June, 2003, 22:49 GMT 23:49 UK
Washington DC: A city of immigrants

By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online, Washington

NY taxi driver
Once, most immigrants moved to New York or LA
Washington, DC, has become a new Mecca for immigrants into the United States in the last decades, with a five-fold increase in 30 years.

Traditionally, new immigrants to the US have first settled in the big port cities on the borders, like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

But in the past 20 years, Washington has become a major destination for immigrants, adding 575,000 residents who were born outside the United States, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.

US Cities with Most Immigrants
Los Angeles: 3.4m
New York: 3.1m
Chicago: 1.4m
Miami: 1.1m
Houston: 850,000
Washington: 832,000
source: US Census, 2000
The new immigrants are a major element in Washington's recent population growth, accounting for half of the total increase in regional population.

In contrast to most other urban areas, Washington's immigrant community is richer, more English-speaking, and more diverse.

And they also stand out for having settled mainly in the suburbs around Washington - notably Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince George's County - rather than within the District of Columbia itself.

Diverse group

Immigrants now make up 17% of Washington's metropolitan area population of 5m.

Washington's largest immigrant groups
El Salvador
United Kingdom
source: US Census Bureau
But they come from a diverse group of countries, with 39% from Latin America, 36% from Asia, 12% from Europe, and 11% from Africa.

The biggest single group comes from El Salvador, a small Central American country that has been wracked by civil war.

Mexico, Peru, Guatemala, and Bolivia are also among the top 10 countries of origin, while the top Asian countries are Korea, China, India, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Immigrants from the UK are the next largest group, and represent the largest single group from Europe.

And Washington has one of the highest proportion of African immigrants of any metropolitan area.

Less poverty, more English

According to Census figures, around 10% of immigrant households live in poverty, compared to 6.8% for the region as a whole.

This is a much lower percentage in poverty than in other major metropolitan areas, where around double the number of immigrants were found to be living in poverty.

Part of the reason may be that the recent immigrants to Washington tend to be good English speakers, with 62% saying they speak English well or very well, and one in six saying they only speak English at home and work.

The immigrant community also works in a more diverse set of occupations, including services like communications, health care, and high-technology as well as traditional areas like construction and hotel and catering, than in some other metropolitan areas.

The booming Washington economy, with its recent expansion of high-tech and bio-tech firms, has been a major factor in attracting immigrants.

Washington's immigrant community first began to grow in the l970s with the increasing numbers of foreign born residents who worked for international organisations or came as students and decided to stay.

Immigration issues

The 1990s saw more immigrants enter America than at any time since the early 1900s, when the swelling numbers in inner cities prompted a backlash that led to 50 years of severe restrictions on immigration.

Washington's extraordinary growth was just one part of a broader growth across the United States, that had led the Census Bureau to predict that whites will no longer be in the majority by 2050.

Now it remains to be seen whether the war against terrorism will produce the same sort of backlash against immigrants that characterised the l920s.

Many men from Moslem countries are worried that they are going to be expelled for breaching their immigration conditions, despite the fact that few links to terrorists have been found.

US threatens mass expulsions
10 Jun 03  |  Americas
Immigrants rush to meet US deadline
10 Jan 03  |  Americas

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