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Area Immigration Booming

Census Finds Steady Flow Despite Economy, 9/11

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2004; Page A01

More than 34 million immigrants now live in the United States, 10 million of them illegally, according to recent census numbers that show big gains in local and national foreign-born populations

The Washington-Baltimore area, which has the strongest metropolitan economy in the nation, now has nearly 1.3 million immigrants, an increase of 379,000 since 2000, according to a report to be released today by the Center for Immigration Studies.

Juanita Chan, left, conducts an English course for immigrants offered by the Chinatown Service Center at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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The flow of people into the country has continued at a significant pace despite an economic slowdown, which traditionally discourages migration, and despite restrictions on immigration and more stringent security in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

"This data seems to suggest you have an ongoing level of new entries which is pretty substantial," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, which studies Latino demographics. "It seems to be impervious to the federal government's efforts to control the border."

The continuously booming immigrant population is reviving some urban areas and producing record demand for English classes. It is also increasing the ranks of the uninsured, fueling the debate over granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and provoking complaints when residents notice day laborers congregating in their neighborhoods.

How to manage the growing population of illegal immigrants also is a political dilemma. Over the weekend, President Bush promised to revive a controversial proposal to let some undocumented workers get jobs but not citizenship -- an idea that draws fire from liberals and conservatives.

Immigrants now make up 12 percent of the U.S. household population, up from 11 percent in 2000, according to the new report, which is based on a Census Bureau survey taken in March. The number of illegal immigrants has grown by about 2 million since 2000, said the report by the center, which favors restrictions on new arrivals.

The center's estimates of the illegal immigrant population are close to those of Jeffrey S. Passel, an Urban Institute demographer who is an expert on unauthorized migration. The census survey indicates there were 9.1 million illegal immigrants in March, but it undercounted by 10 percent, according to the center's demographer, Steven A. Camarota.

Passel said yesterday that he believes there were 9.8 million unauthorized immigrants in 2003, and the number has grown to 10 million since then.

A spokesman for the federal Department of Homeland Security said the government estimates that more than 8 million immigrants are in the United States illegally, with increases of 300,000 to 350,000 people a year.

Passel co-authored an Urban Institute report on undocumented immigrants this year that said more than two-thirds live in six states -- California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, New York and New Jersey. It estimated that 175,000 to 200,000 live in Virginia, 120,000 to 150,000 in Maryland, and 25,000 to 50,000 live in the District.

Those numbers include people who cross the border illegally, people who overstay legal visas and a small number of people who are awaiting permanent visas, such as Central Americans eligible for a special legalization program and people who have applied for asylum.

In southern Fairfax County, where a booming immigrant population lives in the Mount Vernon Route 1 corridor, the newest arrivals include middle-class people from Argentina, Bolivia and other South American countries with poor economies. Many were professional people in their home countries who came here on tourist visas and compete for low-paying jobs such as babysitters, construction workers, house cleaners and landscapers.

At Good Shepherd Catholic Church, these middle-class urbanites are a contrast to rural immigrants from Central America already in the congregation. Although the new arrivals have hard lives, "there are more parallels from their society to ours, so it's probably a little easier to assimilate," said Leah Tenorio, director of Hispanic ministry for Good Shepherd.

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