One in Five

Monday, August 21, 2006

FOR THE immigrant-rich Washington area, few conclusions easily flow from the Census Bureau's latest numbers. The mid-decade count of American households reports that as of 2005 more than a million immigrants live in the District and the Washington suburbs -- that's about one in five area residents, up from one in six in 2000. Such a rapid growth in the area's immigrant population is bound to cause strains, real and imagined. Local communities are concerned that fast-growing immigrant populations will tax social services, including health care and local educational systems. School officials in Prince William County say, for example, that since 2001 the number of students taking courses designed for non-English speakers has soared 274 percent.

But the census numbers also show that many of the area's immigrants are well educated and have contributed to the region's recent vitality. Four in 10 have a bachelor's degree or higher. A majority speak English proficiently. And the survey counted both legal and illegal immigrants, so there's no hidden underclass going undocumented. Thousands have moved into areas such as Loudoun County, where skilled Indian immigrants help to fuel the budding Dulles technology corridor.

In short, the many ethnic, religious and national communities that Washington attracts are so varied that not much can be said about them as a group. Arguing over whether the region's immigrant magnet is merely good or bad misses the lesson the census numbers provide. Immigration to the region is too complicated an issue for the kind of broad generalizations often tossed around and abused in this year's congressional debate on immigration.

There's a pernicious image of America's immigrants circulating: unskilled laborers scaling fences along unguarded borders; undocumented workers taking jobs that pay both under the table and under the minimum wage; packed inner-city enclaves filled with newcomers who don't speak English and demand an inordinate amount of government services. That is a grossly distorted image and an incomplete presentation of the facts, at least in the Washington area. It also overshadows a much more complex -- and positive -- reality.


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