Publication Date

December 1, 2007

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting


Migration, Immigration, & Diaspora, State & Local (US)

The ambitious souls who flock to Washington each year to burnish their resumes in the halls of power quickly learn the old saw that “no one is actually from D.C.” This perception undoubtedly rankles many life-long District residents. However, the outsiders’ inside joke has a grain of truth to it—Washington has become one of the country’s major hubs of immigration. The D.C. metropolitan area’s immigrant population has more than quintupled since 1970, with immigrants arriving from more than 100 different lands, though 30 countries of origin predominate. Immigrants seeking education at the area’s many colleges and universities or working in the region’s expanding construction, hospitality, and technology sectors have transformed the city and its suburbs. Immigration challenges us to rethink the old stereotype of Washington as a sleepy town of monuments, ne’er-do-well lawmakers, and inexcusably hot summers.

Migration has long shaped the region’s history. Seeking work and a small measure of relief from the worst of Jim Crow, African Americans migrated to the District from the rural South in the early 1900s. By 1930 they constituted more than a quarter of the city’s residents. After World War II, as opportunities for federal employment grew and conditions continued to deteriorate in the South, still more African Americans came to the capital. Coupled with a white exodus to the suburbs, this meant that by 1970 blacks constituted 71 percent of the city’s residents. By the mid-1970s, Washington had attained home rule and elected a black mayor and a black majority to the city council.

Immigration accelerated and diversified at this transitional moment in the city’s history. Emigrants from Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and the Horn of Africa came to the region to escape war, starvation, and repression. Latino immigrants clustered in the city’s Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods, forming the nucleus of what became known as “El Barrio.” Puerto Ricans, as well as Cuban professionals who had fled Castro’s revolution, were the early leaders of this diverse Latino community. They built social service agencies to aid the hundreds of thousands of working-class Spanish speakers who sought safe haven and work in the city’s construction, cleaning, and food service industries. The city’s Roman Catholic churches added Spanish language masses and became focal points of immigrant spiritual, educational, and social life. Dances, Spanish-language movies, and a community festival further generated a sense of common purpose and identity among the District’s Latin American immigrants.

As scores of Salvadorans arrived in the 1980s, becoming the single largest immigrant group in the region, the area became a hotbed of activism for refugee relief and against U.S. intervention in Latin America. It has become ritual for politicians seeking national election in El Salvador to visit the area, and for Salvadoran political parties to organize among the immigrants. For their part, many area politicians shore up their support by taking formal and informal campaign trips to El Salvador.

Africans too settled in Adams Morgan during the 1970s and 1980s. Recently, the historically black neighborhoods of U Street and Shaw have become centers of commerce and community for the African immigrants, who comprise somewhere between 15 and 20 percent of the region’s foreign-born population. Tens of thousands have come from Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. What has become the largest community of Ethiopians in North America has established mutual aid organizations and gained important footholds in key industries, such as the taxi business. The stretch of 9th Street NW below U Street is a blend of Ethiopian restaurants, groceries, salons, and nightspots. Recently, tensions have emerged between Ethiopian and African American community activists over efforts to designate an area once considered part of D.C.’s “Black Broadway” as “Little Ethiopia.” This conflict underscores anxieties over gentrification felt by African American residents who see their neighborhoods, still recovering from the city’s 1968 riots, sprout luxury condos and yoga studios but precious little affordable housing.

Meanwhile, the foreign born have moved beyond the city limits, pushed by downtown gentrification and drawn by relentless suburban housing development, subverting old patterns of a diverse urban core surrounded by “white flight” suburbs. Indeed, in the 1990s nearly 90 percent of local immigrants settled in the suburbs, almost half of those in exurban communities. Twenty-six percent of the region’s immigrants lived in the District in 1970; that number had fallen to 9 percent by 2000. During this time, the foreign-born population of Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County increased by a factor of 14 to nearly a quarter of a million people. Vietnamese refugees attracted to the cheap rents of the inner Virginia suburbs of Clarendon and Seven Corners were central to suburban immigration, turning fading strip malls such as Seven Corners’ Eden Center into business and community centers housing dozens of Vietnamese restaurants, groceries, jewelers, and travel agents.

New cultures and politics have emerged in the city, but rising housing costs and anti-immigration politics press hard on the immigrant communities. Suburban civic associations complain that vendors hawking pupusas (a Salvadoran treat) to new immigrants threaten their property values. Some suburban residents fear the spread of immigrant gangs and other “urban” problems to their communities. Exurban politicians denounce day laborers and threaten to deny public services to illegal immigrants. Against this backdrop, the immigration debate in Congress may mean more to those who live and work in the Washington region than ever before. It may still seem that “no one is actually from D.C.,” but what that means is increasingly open to interpretation.

Benjamin Francis-Fallon is a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University.