News & Politics

2006 Who We Are: Where D.C. Immigrants Are From

America’s first waves of immigrants came from Europe. The newest arrivals are from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.

The decision to leave home and emigrate to America is one that for many Washingtonians is preserved mainly in old family records and stories handed down over generations. Except among African-Americans, those stories used to begin mostly in Europe. Among the earliest to arrive in massive numbers were Germans and Irish, nearly a million of whom came here in the 1840s to escape a potato famine. With the opening of Ellis Island in New York Harbor in 1891, the lines were filled with Italians, Jews, Swedes, Norwegians, Greeks, and Poles.

The surge in immigration that Washington has seen over the past three decades could not be more different. Only one in ten of the new immigrants comes from Europe, with the rest from parts of the world the nation once sought to exclude. During the 1990s, according to a study by Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution, people came to Washington from 193 countries—thanks in part to a liberalization of immigration laws. About 36 percent were from Asia, 33 percent from Latin America, 11 percent from Africa, and 6 percent from the Caribbean.

Few American cities compare with Washington in having immigrants from so many countries. Just over 40 nations have exported more than 4,500 people each into this region, with seven of them (El Salvador, Korea, India, Vietnam, Mexico, China, and the Philippines) topping 30,000. The mix includes several hundred Mongolians who have settled in Arlington.

Many of the new immigrants are refugees from civil wars, revolutions, and political repression that made life back home intolerable. Many of the South Vietnamese and Cubans were on the losing sides of communist takeovers. Some Afghanis came here after the Soviet invasion of their country. Central Americans, especially from El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, were escaping natural disasters and civil wars that raged for years.

American jobs are an attraction for many. Compared with the grinding poverty in the developing world, even a menial job in the United States pays wages many times those in Mexico or Central America, allowing immigrants not only to survive but to send money home to relatives. Well-educated immigrants from India, Korea, and elsewhere often have computer skills to qualify for work visas and end up in technical jobs in Washington’s booming suburbs.

Local universities attract lots of foreign students, some of whom stay after graduation. Howard University, in keeping with its African-American heritage, has long educated large numbers from Africa and the Caribbean. In the 1970s, when the Shah of Iran was using his country’s oil wealth to send young people overseas for training in engineering, business, and other fields, George Washington University enrolled several hundred Iranians—many of whom stayed here after the Shah was ousted by the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Washington has a moderate climate, which is important to people accustomed to warm weather. Good public schools in the suburbs are especially important to Asians, and America has universities eager to admit high-achieving minority students. Some newcomers have personal connections with American military, intelligence, or diplomatic officials they met in their home countries.

Once a few people from a country arrive, it’s common for others to follow, including relatives, friends, and others from the same town. So many Salvadorans have come from the town of Chirilagua that there’s now an annual Chirilagua festival and Chirilagua Supermarket in Arlandria, where many of them settled.

A few groups have found Washington especially to their liking. Salvadorans are one—we’re second behind Los Angeles as a destination. Another is Africans, especially the 15,000 Ethiopians. That’s enough to support lots of restaurants with the country’s distinctive cuisine, many concentrated at Ninth and U streets, Northwest, an area that’s become known as Little Ethiopia.

We have far fewer Cubans than Miami, fewer Dominicans and Russians than New York City, fewer Muslims than Detroit, and fewer Mexicans than Los Angeles and Houston. But there has been a big jump here in the number of Mexican immigrants, who were fairly uncommon two decades ago. More than 32,000 were counted in the 2000 census, and lots of undocumented aliens mean the number is probably higher.

There also are some surprises, perhaps a reflection of the impact of restaurants on our awareness of immigrant presence. Despite Washington’s large number of Thai restaurants, the number of Thais here is small (5,200). But Filipinos, who have few restaurants, are numerous (31,000).

Native Countries

Nations with large numbers ofimmigrants living in Washington.

Central America  
El Salvador 105,000
Mexico 32,400
Guatemala 20,000
Honduras 13,700
Nicaragua 8,400
South America  
Peru 20,300
Bolivia 19,600
Colombia 9,900
Guyana 7,200
Brazil 6,300
Ecuador 5,100
Argentina 4,900
Chile 4,800
East Asia  
Korea 45,800
Vietnam 37,200
China * 32,000
Philippines 31,700
Taiwan 10,100
Japan 8,200
Thailand 5,200
South Asia  
India 45,600
Pakistan 16,900
Bangladesh 4,900
Ethiopia 15,000
Nigeria 13,700
Ghana 11,000
Sierra Leone 7,500
Jamaica 18,300
Trinidad and Tobago 9,600
Dominican Republic 7,900
Haiti 5,200
Cuba 4,500
Middle East  
Iran 17,400
Afghanistan 6,500
Egypt 5,100
United Kingdom 18,900
Germany 17,300
France 7,200
Italy 5,900
Canada 12,000
Russia 8,000

* Includes Hong Kong Source: 2000 census by US Census Bureau, Audrey Singer of the Brookings Institution