Immigrants and their families living in the Washington-Baltimore area appear better off than those in the rest of the country and are slightly less likely to be poor than their American-born neighbors here are, according to a new study of U.S. census data.

Only 7 percent of those in immigrant-headed households locally live below the poverty line, compared with nearly 22 percent nationally, the study says. The poverty rate for the region's non-immigrant residents is 11 percent, according to the study, compared with 12 percent nationally.

The figures, included in a national report by the Center for Immigration Studies, highlight the unusual nature of the region's fast-growing immigrant population -- which is more educated, more diverse and, apparently, less poor than in other cities.

Of the 11 metropolitan areas in the country with the largest immigrant populations, the Washington-Baltimore region ranked last in immigrant poverty. It was the only one in which immigrants appeared less likely to be poor than natives, though the difference was small enough to be explained by statistical error.

"Washington certainly stands out," said Steven A. Camarota, director of research at the center, which advocates new limits on immigration. He said the findings do not undermine the study's argument that immigration is a major factor in the growth of poverty in the United States.

"If immigrants had the same education levels nationally as they do in the D.C. area, then there would be no problem," he said. "Unfortunately, D.C. is far and away the exception, not the rule."

Camarota defined immigrant households as those in which the head is foreign-born, but he also counted people not related to the household head as being on their own. He said immigrants may appear poorer than his figures indicate because many also support relatives in their homelands who are not considered household members.

Still, some advocates in Washington's immigrant communities were surprised by the findings.

"I just don't see immigrant families doing much better here than other areas," said Arli Eicher, coordinator of the D.C. Immigrant Coalition.

Others criticized the study for not considering the region's high cost of living. It used the federal government's definition of poverty, which for a typical family of four is an income of about $16,400.

"You couldn't survive in the Washington area if you were making that," said John Liss, director of the immigrant-dominant Tenants' and Workers' Support Committee in Alexandria. "A family of four could be making $20,000 in Kansas and might be doing pretty good, but here they'd be eating dirt."

Camarota said regional differences in living expenses would not explain why the poverty rate among immigrants here was lower than in San Francisco, New York and other cities with high costs of living. Instead, he said, the lower poverty rate might be explained by Washington's booming economy, the inclusion of foreign-born diplomats as immigrants and the fact that immigrants here appear better educated.

Analysis of data from 1996 and 1997, he said, showed that more than half of all adults living in immigrant households in the area had completed college -- compared with 35 percent of other adult residents here and 24 percent of adult immigrants nationally.

Local immigrants, he said, are more likely than other area residents to be high school dropouts -- but their dropout rate is half the national rate for immigrants.

"Education is the single most important predictor of poverty status," he said. "The real question then is, `Why are D.C. immigrants more educated?' It probably has to do with the local economy and the kind of immigrants who would be drawn to work in it."

The area's immigrant work force is polarized, with unusually high levels of employment both in high-income technical and low-income service jobs. Large differences also exist by country of origin, with many immigrants from Central America arriving with little schooling and many from Asia bringing college degrees.

But Robert Manning, a Georgetown sociologist who studies the local immigrant population, said those on both ends of the educational spectrum are faring well because of the region's labor shortage. "The economy is sucking them into jobs as fast as they come," he said.

Saul Solorzano, director of the Central American Resource Center, said even those employed as low-wage restaurant workers or janitors here are more likely to live above the poverty line than in other cities -- in part because so many are working multiple jobs.

"I've lived in California, and the competition for jobs, the types of jobs available, the salaries -- I can tell you from experience that things are better here," he said. "The economy is great right now for immigrants . . . and immigration has been good for the economy."

Immigrants and Poverty

Seven percent of local people in immigrant-headed households live below the poverty line, as compared with the national rate of 22 percent. How Washington measures up to other metropolitan areas:

Poverty rates for people residing in immigrant and native households:

Metropolitan areas Immigrant (percent) Native (percent)

Phoenix 37.8% 11.2%

Houston --

Galveston --

Brazoria 34.0 12.0

Los Angeles --

Riverside --

Orange County 26.3 12.5

Nationally* 21.8 12.0

Miami --

Fort Lauderdale 20.8 9.3

New York --

N.J. --

Long Island 20.2 12.3

Philadelphia --

Wilmington, Del.

-- Atlantic City 18.2 12.0

Boston --

Worcester --

Lawrence 17.4 8.7

Chicago --

Kenosha, Wis. 16.7 9.6

Dallas -- Fort Worth 16.6 9.5

San Francisco --

Oakland --

San Jose 10.1 6.0

Washington --

Baltimore 7.2 11.3

* Based on 1997 census data only.

SOURCE: Center for Immigration Studies' analysis of census data for 1996-97

Below the Poverty Line

(In percent)

Nationally*

Washington

Immigrant households

Nationally: 21.8

Washington: 7.2

Native households

Nationally: 12.0

Washington: 11.3

*Based on 1997 census data only.