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Greater Washington, unlike more industrialized urban areas, hasn't always been a magnet for immigrants, according to Robert D. Manning, a visiting professor at Georgetown University who has studied the region's immigration patterns.
Before World War II, the District had a few ethnic neighborhoods Italians near Union Station, Irish in Georgetown, and, of course, Chinatown but the foreign-born populace was small and confined to the city.
More immigrants began settling here in the 1950s, with the founding of international institutions, the growth of the diplomatic community and the arrival of many overseas students.
The pace accelerated in the 1970s and 1980s, but with immigrants who were less educated. By all predictions, immigration will continue at the same rate, although who is admitted will depend on U.S. policy and world events. The Census Bureau ranks Virginia eighth and Maryland ninth among states in projected immigration growth by 2025. The District is expected to attract more immigrants than 30 states during the same period, which should help the city reverse its population decline.
"We're talking a particularly heterogeneous group, from unskilled Vietnamese to physicists from China," Manning said. "Both are critical to the post-industrial economy."
As immigration to the suburbs has swelled, Maryland and Virginia have become almost equally popular with foreign-born residents. But there are some striking differences along ethnic and racial lines as to who settles where.
There are Spanish-speaking immigrants throughout the region, but Virginia is drawing more of them, partly because Arlington's well-entrenched Latino community keeps absorbing newcomers. Immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean usually go to Maryland, where most of the region's native-born blacks live. Middle-class Filipinos are heavily concentrated in Fort Washington, near military bases where many first came to work. Fairfax City is favored by Koreans, many of whom moved there from more modest Arlington neighborhoods.
Immigrants higher up the socioeconomic ladder seldom live in ethnic enclaves. But war refugees and those fleeing political persecution have often settled in scattered apartment complexes where agencies place them or where refugee services are nearby.
The region's once-rural areas also are attracting the foreign-born. Since the early 1980s, the number of new immigrants coming to Loudoun and Prince William counties has tripled, although they still make up only a small fraction of the population. In Montgomery County, two social service workers who help immigrants were recently redeployed north from Wheaton to Gaithersburg, because that's where the newest foreign-born are locating.
"People share information: If you want to go to U.S.A., where is the place you can enjoy year-round? Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.," said the Rev. Kim Man-Poong, senior pastor at Korean Global Mission Church in Silver Spring. This region also is attractive, he said, because of its many colleges and universities.
As immigrants push farther out from the inner city, they are transforming ordinary suburban communities into polyglot worlds. Among them is Zip code 20906 the Wheaton-Silver Spring-Aspen Hill community that is the region's most internationally diverse.
Located five miles outside the Beltway, with Connecticut Avenue, Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road as its major commercial arteries, this area had farms and dirt roads until the 1960s. Home construction crested in the 1970s, and the big wave of immigrants began arriving in the 1980s. Now, more than one in five residents in this community of 56,000 is an immigrant.
The area has both crowded apartment buildings where hardly anyone speaks English and brick Colonials with rolling lawns where most homeowners are American-born. There is more of a mix along the blocks of one-story starter homes with chain-link fences, where immigrants make up a growing share of buyers and tenants.
The 1990 Census showed that, in contrast to the rest of the region, most Hispanics in this Zip code, natives and immigrants alike, own their own homes. Joe Leon, a Latino Realtor born in this country, said immigrants are so eager to own homes that four adults often co-sign a mortgage in order to qualify. One couple had such tight finances, he recalled, that all they served at their housewarming party was baloney on Ritz crackers.
"There are people who are more interested in a house than a car," said Leon, whose "For Sale" signs identify him as both "Joe Leon" and "Jose Leon." "The first thing they ask [is], 'What bus line is it on?' "
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