Immigrants: More Boon Than Burden
By D'Vera Cohn
Immigrants are having an enormous effect on economic and civic life in the Washington region, where their numbers have swelled by more than 350,000 since the early 1980s. In schools and work places, at community health clinics and social service offices, their increasing presence in the District and Washington suburbs affects nearly every aspect of private industry and government although not necessarily in ways their native-born neighbors might realize.
Whether this surge in immigration adds up to a boon or a burden for local jurisdictions and the area's economy is difficult to assess, however. No systematic survey has documented what the Washington region's immigrants provide in taxes and economic growth versus what they cost in services. Still, the best available evidence suggests that area immigrants who now account for one in six residents make greater contributions and impose fewer costs than those in many other urban centers that have large foreign-born populations.
The most comprehensive immigration study yet, released last year by the National Research Council, found that immigration provides an overall modest net gain for the United States roughly $7 billion to $10 billion a year in an $8 trillion economy. Some local governments feel the financial strain in states with a large number of immigrants, notably California, the report said, because those households are more likely to have school-age children, depend on social services and pay lower taxes than native residents.
But the Washington region, besides having fewer immigrants, has an above average proportion who arrived with skills, education or jobs already waiting for them, according to U.S. Census Bureau and Immigration and Naturalization Service data. This is probably a key reason why even as Congress and D.C.-based "think tanks" wage a national debate on the pros and cons of immigration the anti-immigration backlash in California and Texas has failed to take hold here.
In the Wheaton-Silver Spring-Aspen Hill Zip code of 20906, the region's most ethnically diverse, more than one in five of the 58,000 residents is foreign-born. In South Arlington's Zip code 22204, which has the highest concentration of immigrants in the area, 28 percent of the 43,000 residents is foreign-born.
Still, greater Washington does not appear to be a place where low-paid, native-born employees have been pushed out by a new, foreign-born work force, says William Frey, a University of Michigan demographer who has studied metropolitan areas with high immigration.
In addition, illegal immigrants, who are more likely to be uneducated and poor, make up only 11 percent of the foreign-born population in Maryland and 15 percent in Virginia as compared with 25 percent in California, according to government estimates. The percentage in the District is unknown but could be substantially higher.
As immigrants have become part of the region's economic fabric, their purchasing power has grown steadily. In communities such as Seven Corners in Falls Church, Adams-Morgan in the District and Wheaton in Montgomery County, hundreds of immigrant-owned or inspired shops and services from international couriers and fast-food chicken to auto body shops and ethnic restaurants have opened in the last decade.
"If you really want to look at the immigrant impact, look at all the small business starts in a place like Wheaton the ethnic markets, the travel agencies, the laundries," said Ana Sol Gutierrez, a member of the Montgomery County school board who was born in El Salvador and whose father was once its finance minister.
In Arlington, Angel Juarez Valle, who arrived penniless from Central America in 1980 and today co-owns Abi's, a popular Salvadoran restaurant, boasts: "I was the first one to introduce pupusas to Virginia. Now people can't get enough of them."
But immigrants are buying much more than $5 lunch specials. The region's Hispanic community is the fifth largest Latino enclave in the nation and one of the four wealthiest, according to private marketing surveys. More and more, mainstream insurance companies, car dealerships and other firms are discovering and courting this lucrative market.
A Nissan dealer in Tysons Corner takes out regular ads in local Spanish-language newspapers, featuring two Latino salesmen. A Giant store in Arlington just added an entire aisle of popular Latino foods, from black beans to guava paste. A chiropractor says 90 percent of the 850 patients at his four suburban Maryland clinics are Latinos, who often turn to chiropractors because they are cheaper than physicians.
The Hispanic Yellow Pages, a private guide published in Alexandria, carries ads for U.S. and foreign-born dentists and doctors as well as national real estate firms, airlines and banks.
"I'd say 98 percent of my clients are Hispanic," said Joel Atlas Skirble, a U.S.-born lawyer who started out in Adams-Morgan in 1974 and now does most of his business in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs. He is widely known for his "I speak your language" pitch on Spanish-language television. In truth, he doesn't, but it hardly matters: his firm has 19 Spanish-speaking employees.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company