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Employers, Not Family, Drive Area Immigration

Still, it is hard to overstate the impact of the rise of employment-based immigration to Washington and the other new knowledge economy centers.

"It gave us a totally new geography of immigration," Singer said.

From 1990 to 2000, the Washington area's foreign-born population grew by about 70 percent. Since 2000, it has grown by at least 23 percent, to more than 1 million.

Just as significantly, a large number of the newcomers are from nations such as India, Korea and China, whose immigrants tend to be highly educated. (More than three-fourths of recent Indian immigrants hold a bachelor's degree or higher, for instance.) Immigrants from those three nations now constitute the largest immigrant groups in Washington after Salvadorans.

The higher salaries they command have also allowed many in this new wave of immigrants to move directly to Washington's outskirts, rather than forming ethnic enclaves within the District or its inner suburbs.

Once all-white suburbs such as Annandale now have Korean groceries stocked with kimchi and Indian boutiques selling saris and the latest Bollywood DVDs. But although businesses serving the newcomers have occasionally concentrated in particular sections of the suburbs, their customers have chosen to live across a wide swath of territory.

In Washington's suburbs, "it's rare to find a place with a heavy concentration of any one group," Singer said.

The result is a United Nations effect. People from a tremendous diversity of backgrounds live, work and play side by side. Schools, churches and even hospitals offer services in not just one or two but five or more foreign languages.

This trend could become the national norm if the point system in the Senate bill is adopted.

Under that plan, most of the employer- and family-sponsored green cards would be eliminated. Instead, prospective immigrants would compete for a limited number of visas according to the number of points they can accrue out of a total of 100.

By far the greatest number of points would go to immigrants who have advanced degrees and connections to U.S. employers in high-tech industries.

A low-skilled immigrant who has extended family in the United States would get some points for that, but probably too few to qualify for entry.

A recent analysis by the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank, suggests that the overall effect of this would be to reverse the strong Mexican character of immigration to the United States in favor of immigrants from Asian nations.

In Washington, the impact might be smaller, as the region's already substantial proportion of Asian immigrants grows even higher.

The area could also experience a decline in the relative size of its Salvadoran population. But that effect might be mitigated by the fact that at least a fifth of Washington area Salvadoran immigrants get green cards as spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens -- who would still be allowed to enter without restrictions under the Senate plan.

About 60 percent of the region's Salvadoran-born residents are illegal immigrants, according to Jeffrey Passel, a senior research associate at the Washington-based Pew Hispanic Center who studies the illegal immigrant population. It is a matter of debate whether illegal immigrants would continue to come to the Washington area despite beefed-up border enforcement provisions called for in the Senate plan.

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