Area Immigrants: Census Survey

The Washington metropolitan region is home to more than 1 million immigrants, solidifying its position as a gateway to America, according to census figures released today.

“Immigration to the United States has not slowed in the past five years as new data by the 2005 American Community Survey shows, explains Audrey Singer, a demographer and Immigration Fellow at The Brookings Institution. “However,” she continued in an interview with, “the latest trends show that immigrants are settling in many new places around the country with implications for local areas. Now Washington has joined the ranks of other major immigrant destinations such as Miami, Chicago, Houston and Dallas.”

Singer was online Tuesday, Aug. 15, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the survey findings and the significance for the Washington metropolitan area as well as across the nation.

Audrey Singer: The new American Community Survey data released by Census today tells us much about immigrants across communities in the United States today. Looking forward to your questions.

Fairfax, Va.: Do the results found for the D.C. metro area in this survey pretty much mirror the other cities mentioned in the Post article?

Audrey Singer: What’s different about Washington is that it has a different mix of immigrants from most other metropolitan areas. The largest group is from El Salvador, but they are nowhere near the majority. Koreans, Indians, Vietnamese, and Mexicans are the next largest groups. Washington is also attractive to Africans from many countries, there are well over 100,000 in the regions.

Washington does share a similar trend with other metropolitan areas in where immigrants are choosing to live, primarily in the suburbs.

They also are highly educated as the Post article pointed out. This is due Washington’s job market, which has abundant high-skilled jobs.

Washington, D.C.: It’s no surprise that many legal immigrants have Bachelor’s degrees or higher, because immigration law requires a Bachelor’s degree or its equivalent for an H-1B visa. There are few options to come to the U.S. to work besides the H-1B visa, unless you’re an intra-company transferee or have a ton of money to invest. The others that don’t have the Bachelor’s degree are people who immigrated via the family route, asylum route, or via amnesties for the undocumented. Otherwise they have work experience considered to be “equivalent to” a Bachelor’s degree.

Then again, I’m wondering what definition the survey used for the word “immigrants”—is it those who obtained permanent residence in this country, or is it a general term used for people who were born outside the U.S. and relocated here?

Audrey Singer: Actually, the majority of immigrants who come to the United States with green cards are coming through the family unification policies of U.S. law. They do not have to meet the educational requirement and neither do refugees, who make up about 10% of entries. But many of them do hold higher ed degrees, or they attain degrees in the United States.

The definition of immigrant here relates to the census question on birthplace. Anyone who was born outside the united states (with the exception of those born abroad to U.S. citizen parents) is considered ‘foreign-born’ or and immigrant.

Chantilly, Va.: You have categorized the Washington metropolitan area as an “emerging immigrant gateway” based on 2000 Census data. Today, you are quoted as saying that it “has emerged.” At what point is a destination considered “emerged” and are there other metropolitan areas that have made this shift over the past five years?

Audrey Singer: I think the answer is that Washington was already on the verge of emerging when the 2000 census counted more than 800,000 immigrants residing in the region, similar to Houston and Orange County CA. With over a million immigrants now, and 1-in-5 being foreign-born, and immigration continuing, this is conclusive.

Other metropolitan areas that are trending in this direction include Dallas-Ft. Worth which has a similar size and growth rate.

I’m flattered that you know my work so well!

Washington, D.C.: Is this data publicly available? Does it show other areas—including smaller, less urban areas?

Audrey Singer: All the data are available online at the Web site for areas over 65,000 population. Look for the American Community Survey.

Annandale, Va.: I’m the grandson of a Slovak immigrant who came here legally. He never had more than a sixth grade education and he worked hard labor till the day he died. I can appreciate the immigrants of this country working hard to be good citizens. I can also appreciate the natural desire of people to better their life and even come here as illegal immigrants. I can’t abide giving them citizen breaks, gifts, money, social security credits, etc., until they are citizens. Educate their kids yes. Allow them to be citizens if they have been here for a while. But no golden charity.

Audrey Singer: I agree with you and think most people living in the United States, including immigrants would agree too. As you point out, most immigrants come here for a better life, better job opportunities, better future for their children and grandchildren. In fact, to become a U.S. citizen you have to meet the requirement for U.S. residency, which is normally five years.

Washington, D.C.: Is the full study available on The Bookings Institution Web site? If so, can you provide a link? Thank you.

Audrey Singer: Sorry, Brookings has not yet analyzed the data released today. (These are data straight from the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community Survey.) But look for new publications in the near future, from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. We have many publications online addressing demographic change, metropolitan change and immigration on our website.

Bowie, Md.: How much confidence does the Census Bureau have that they’ve accurately counted the illegal population?

Audrey Singer: It is acknowledged that the Census Bureau does the best it can to get accurate counts. But there are people that for various reasons, are not counted including immigrants. There has been research recently that has made statistical adjustments to include undocumented immigrants in a count for the Washington metropolitan area. That research was done by authors at the Urban Institute and Pew Hispanic Center.

Ellicott City, Md.: Some immigrant groups seem interested in assimilating into American culture and the English language and others don’t. Are there any cultural, linguistic or religious groups that are likely to have continuing assimilation problems into the 2nd and 3rd generation (similar to what we have seem in France with North African and Great Britain with South Asian immigrants)?

Audrey Singer: I think one of the main differences between the United States and immigrant-receiving countries in Europe is that the U.S. generally does a better job of integrating immigrants economically and socially. This is particularly salient for the children of immigrants or the “second generation.”

Also many of Europe’s immigrants are asylum seekers, and their motivation to leave their home countries is often very different from the typical immigrant that the United States receives.

Columbia, Md.: Any data on immigrants from Spain? Most of the Spanish-speaking immigrants I come across here in the area are from Central/South America and I was wondering how many actually came from Spain. Thanks.

Audrey Singer: There are Spanish immigrants in the region, but they are not a large group. The European immigrant groups that rank the highest are the UK and Germany, but they each are less than 3 percent of the entire born population.

Washington, D.C.: An article today discussed the fact that many immigrants possess advanced degrees yet are under-employed due to language or other barriers. Do you know of any good policies or programs that are doing a decent job of reducing these barriers so that highly-skilled immigrants can maximize the use of their knowledge and talents?

Audrey Singer: This is a big issue for high-skilled immigrants that are credentialed elsewhere but find they have to retool once in the United States. I can’t think of too many specific programs, but various institutions and private firms try to assist in making the transition. Community colleges are often involved with programs that work with refugees and other immigrants to move them into jobs.

Fairfax, Va.: Considering the large influx in our area of Spanish-speaking immigrants and in the country in general, [the] Spanish language is increasingly commonplace in business, services and other institutions. Do you see the U.S. becoming a bilingual society if it is not already so? And how does this affect the concept of the “melting pot” where newcomers are supposed to assimilate into the culture and adapt the customs and language of the adopted country? Thank you.

Audrey Singer: The language issue is one of the most important and complex issues surrounding the integration of immigrants. On the one hand, local governments need to get important information out to people and often publish documents in other languages and use translation services to reach immigrants.

On the other hand, many adult immigrants come to this country with little language ability and would like to increase their skills but have trouble finding the time or venue.

What’s clear is that the children of immigrants are English speakers. Those who grow up here and attend school, watch TV, enjoy popular culture or all sorts are largely doing this in English.

West Orange, N.J.: Any consensus on whether any census, past or present, has a uniform standard to reflect illegal immigrants? Might there be all sorts of undercounts due to fear of enforcement? On the other hand, might immigration advocates favor generous counts? What impact, if any, of the words in the Constitution that congressional apportionment be based on “enumeration” as opposed to estimates?

Audrey Singer: The census does not ask about legal status. It relies on a question about birthplace to determine who is “foreign-born” which roughly translates into immigrants. I say roughly because it includes all persons who are foreign-born regardless of legal status. These persons can be naturalized U.S. citizens, green card holders, H-1B and other “temporary” statuses, or residing in the U.S. illegally.

So invariably there is an undercount (and there are overcounts too, for example when people mistakenly fill out more than one form if they have more than one residence).

Regarding the enumeration vs. estimates, I think we go round on this debate but for now the enumeration method is here to stay.

Aspen Hill, Md.: Can you give us any reliable figures on what percentage of these million are admitted legally and are legally resident, and can you break it down into categories such as percentage who are Permanent Legal Resident Aliens, percentage who are Permanently Residing Under Color of Law (they are not fully legal but their children are born-here citizens), percentage who are here on long-term visas such as the H-1B Visa, percentage who are seeking citizenship and the percentage who have actually obtained citizenship? Thank you.

Audrey Singer: Please see the last answer. Its impossible to know from the census numbers about any legal status of the foreign-born except whether they have become naturalized citizens or not.

The Pew Hispanic Center has done some estimates of the foreign born population by various legal statuses, so you may want to check their web site.

Washington, D.C.: Can you give the ethnic breakdown of the survey for the Washington area?

Audrey Singer: Some of my earlier answers address part of your question. I don’t have the 2005 numbers handy, but you can look on the Brookings web site and find that stats for country of origin for immigrants in the Washington region.

Audrey Singer: We are out of time. Thank you all for your questions and for the opportunity to answer them.