Area Immigrants Top 1 Million

More than half of the immigrants in Loudoun County have at least a college degree, including SK and Suresh Narasimhan, who are Indian.
More than half of the immigrants in Loudoun County have at least a college degree, including SK and Suresh Narasimhan, who are Indian. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Lyndsey Layton and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 15, 2006

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.

Last year, one in five people in metropolitan Washington were immigrants, compared with one in six in 2000. And the immigrants who have flocked here are better educated than elsewhere.

Washington is now among eight metropolitan areas with immigrant populations of 1 million or more: New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Washington and Dallas, according to William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

"This is a significant benchmark," said Audrey Singer, another Brookings demographer, referring to the census numbers from the 2005 American Community Survey. "It clearly demonstrates that Washington has emerged as an immigrant destination."

The region's immigrant population has more than doubled since 1990, and the overall population grew by about a quarter. Advocates for immigrants say that the survey undercounted the immigrant population and that actual numbers are even higher.

Rising numbers of immigrants in this region have enriched the culture and the economy while they have challenged local governments and triggered sharp controversies over such issues as day laborers. Unlike some other metropolitan areas, the region has no dominant immigrant group.

Most of the region's immigrants live in its three biggest counties, each of which has a different demographic profile. Fairfax County has the region's largest Asian immigrant population, which makes up more than half of its immigrants. Montgomery County is home to the region's largest South American population, with Asian numbers second only to Fairfax. Prince George's County has larger African and Caribbean communities than the other two, reflecting the region's racial divide.

The immigrants here are more highly educated than those nationwide, the data show. Four in 10 hold at least a college degree, compared with less than three in 10 nationally.

This trend is particularly striking in Loudoun County, where 51 percent of immigrants hold college or advanced degrees.

Suresh Narasimhan is among them. The India native has two master's degrees; his wife holds three. They moved from Fairfax to Loudoun 10 years ago and have watched the Indian population mushroom.

"When I moved to South Riding, I was one of only two colored families among 500 families," said Narasimhan, a senior executive at a telecom company. Now, he said, his neighborhood has more than 5,000 families, and 12 to 15 percent are "straight from India."

The dot-com boom of the 1990s and Y2K computer concerns drew many Indian software programmers to the Dulles high-tech corridor, Narasimhan said. Loudoun offered affordable homes and a strong school system -- an attractive combination to Indian families that place a premium on education, he said.

Singer said, "The education levels among the foreign born is not surprising, given the fact that Washington is an information economy and immigrants in highly skilled jobs are bringing their talents here for good reason."

Education is often connected to an immigrant's country of origin, said Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau. The Washington region does not have as many Mexicans as other areas with large immigrant populations. Mexican immigrants are less likely to have a college degree, Mather said. On the other hand, Asians -- who make up 36 percent of the region's immigrants -- are likely to have attained college or advanced degrees, he said.

But more education doesn't always translate into top jobs. Many well-educated immigrants do not speak English well enough to land high-level jobs that match their skills, or they may possess credentials from their home countries that cannot be used without additional education or training, said Jeffrey S. Passel, demographer with the Pew Hispanic Center.

Mukhtar Ahmad was a lawyer in Pakistan. Now, he drives a cab on District streets. He immigrated to the region in 1988. "I would like extremely to practice law here," said Ahmad, 62, who lives in Woodbridge and became a U.S. citizen 10 years ago. "But unfortunately, the school, it is so expensive. The United States is a very nice country, and everyone is coming here. Driving a cab is okay."

Immigrants in the region are more likely to speak English well, compared with those elsewhere in the nation. According to the census data, four in 10 Washington area immigrants don't speak English "very well." Nationally, the figure is 52 percent.

Still, with native-born residents included, the number of poor English speakers adds up to more than half a million of the region's 5.1 million residents, the data show.

Language barriers pose a particular problem for immigrants in Prince William County, where the Hispanic population has surged and 54 percent of foreign-born residents do not speak English "very well," up from 42 percent in 2000, according to the data.

Those figures ring true to Prince William school officials, who say enrollment in their program for students who do not speak English has risen 274 percent in the past five years.

Carol Bass, who supervises the county's program, said 80 percent of students come from Spanish-speaking countries, with a growing share recently from Africa.

But it's not just new immigrants moving to Prince William. Many are resettling there after being priced out of such inner-ring suburbs as Arlington County, which has lost some of its Hispanic population and is growing more white and Asian, the data show.

And Bass said some immigrants are leaving Prince William for opportunities farther out. "We're seeing more and more of what we call the second and third migration," she said. "We're seeing a continued southward migration."

Staff writers D'Vera Cohn and Sue Anne Pressley Montes contributed to this report.

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