Report

At Home in the Nation’s Capital: Immigrant Trends in Metropolitan Washington

Audrey Singer

Findings

An analysis of the growth and location of the foreign born in the Washington metropolitan
area between 1980 and 2000 finds that:

  • The Washington metropolitan area
    attracted 575,000 immigrants
    between 1980 and 2000 and has
    become a major destination for immigrants
    to the United States.
    By 2000, 832,016 immigrants made up some 17
    percent of the region’s population, making
    the area the seventh-largest immigrant
    gateway in the United States.

  • During the 1990s, the largest numerical
    gain of immigrants occurred in
    the inner suburban counties, while
    the largest proportional increase was
    in the outer counties.
    Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince George’s counties
    together gained nearly 250,000 immigrants,
    for an increase of 72 percent.
    Immigrants in the outer counties,
    including Loudoun and Prince William,
    grew by 160 percent with a gain of
    nearly 50,000 foreign-born residents.

  • New immigrants made up nearly half
    of the overall population growth in the
    Washington metropolitan region in the
    past decade.
    Remarkably, some 47.5 percent
    of Washington’s foreign born arrived in the decade. This influx has accounted
    for a majority of inner suburban population
    growth and offset some of the
    District of Columbia’s population losses.

  • Three-quarters of all immigrants in
    greater Washington come from a
    diverse group of 30 origin countries.
    El Salvador tops the list of origin countries
    with more than 100,000 residents
    counted in 2000, or 12.6 percent of the
    foreign-born population. Overall, 39 percent
    of the region’s immigrants come
    from Latin America and the Caribbean,
    36 percent are from Asia, 12 percent
    from Europe, 11 percent from Africa, and
    2 percent from other countries.

  • The majority of the region’s immigrants
    report a good command of the English
    language, with one in six speaking only
    English and 62 percent speaking English
    well or very well.
    This high rate of
    English proficiency exceeds that in all of the other large immigrant metro areas.
    At the same time, more than one-quarter
    of the foreign born in the more densely
    populated immigrant areas of Arlington,
    Alexandria, and the District say they cannot
    speak English well, or at all.

  • The region’s immigrants primarily live
    in moderate and high income neighborhoods,
    not the poorest.
    Not all indicators
    are positive, however, as 10.6
    percent of immigrants live in poverty.

Immigration has indelibly altered the Washington region. Its heterogeneous nature—in
terms of national origin, settlement patterns, language ability, and economic status—poses
unique challenges, particularly in areas of immigrant concentration. How these challenges
are met, especially in light of a languishing economy and the immigration impacts of
September 11, will influence whether the region remains a home and employment center
for immigrants.