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Immigration in DC: Three Things to Know

3 Things to Know Column: National Immigrant Heritage Month

Happy National Immigrant Heritage Month! This June, we highlight the many ways in which DC is a home to immigrants from around the world. From teachers, to business leaders, to hospitality staff, to our very own restaurant owners, cooks and wait staff, immigrants keep this city running! This month, we wanted to take a look at how immigrants make America’s capital great…again, and again. 


1. The DMV area is home to many immigrants from many different backgrounds.   


Washington D.C. is a world city. Of the nearly 670,000 people living in the District, over 13% of the D.C. population is foreign born. One in nine people are citizens with at least one immigrant parent. These numbers don’t even account for the rest of the DMV! Areas such as Montgomery County, MD and Falls Church, VA are home to Langley Park neighborhood (aka International Corridor) and Eden Center. 


The DMV has consistently ranked among the best areas for immigrants to live. The George W. Bush-SMU Institute for Economic Growth ranked the D.C. area 5th in a list of the top 10 U.S. cities where immigrants are thriving. D.C. came in behind Baltimore (2nd place) and San Jose (1st place). Similarly, three areas in the DMV area were ranked as the most diverse cities in the nation. In 2023, WalletHub reported that Gaithersburg, Germantown, and Silver Spring in Maryland were ranked as the most diverse cities according to socioeconomic, cultural, economic, household, and religious diversity. These three cities beat out metropolises like New York City, Houston, and Los Angeles. 


In the District of Columbia the top five most populous groups are from El Salvador (11.5%), the Dominican Republic (6.5%), Ethiopia (5%) China (4.6%), and Columbia (4.2%). Many Salvadoran and Ethiopian immigrants, for example, came because of political turmoil at home in the 1960s and 70s. Experts say that immigrants continue to come because of the familiar, developed, connected  and welcoming communities that exist in D.C. In addition, there are economic opportunities in a number of sectors like construction, retail and hospitality. These sectors provide steady and reliable income. 


Throughout the DMV there are enclaves of different nationalities that have popped up: Little Ethiopia in Silver Spring, Chinatown in Rockville, and a large Salvadorian presence in both Langley Park and Manassas. These communities inspire entrepreneurship, bringing a diverse set of businesses to their neighborhoods. Immigrants have helped to fill workforce gaps, while becoming necessary for major industries to function. What can we say? Immigrants, we get the job done! 


2. Washington, DC is a sanctuary city.   


Did you know that Washington, DC is a sanctuary city? Across the country, cities, counties, and 11 states claim sanctuary status. What does a sanctuary city mean and what does DC do to maintain its sanctuary status? 


Sanctuary cities don’t honor requests by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.  Police in these cities do not detain and hold undocumented immigrants apprehended for ongoing investigations and misdemeanor charges. In addition, police do not ask questions about immigration status during routine stops. Many of these sanctuary regions have become safe havens for immigrants to settle and live in safely without fear of detainment due to immigrant status.


D.C. has a lengthy history of being a sanctuary city, officially announcing its status in 2009. Mayor Muriel Bowser stated that D.C.’s status is safer as a sanctuary city as it “ensures that all residents can call law enforcement without fear.” She pushed back against former President Trump’s hostile immigration policies after he threatened to withhold city funding because of DC’s sanctuary status.


In 2022, the governors of Texas and Arizona decided to use migrants as a political stunt. Governors Abbott and Ducey claimed that border states were bearing the brunt of incoming migrants. By “sending a message” to sanctuary cities, they began bussing migrants to DC, NY and other places from Texas and Arizona. Mayor Bowser continues to be an advocate for immigrants rights, and she unlocked $10 million in city funds to help bussed migrants through an emergency declaration. With this funding, she established the Office of Migrant Services which now provides meals, medical care, and temporary housing to new arrivals. Her work has helped take immediate pressure off overwhelmed nonprofit groups. 


The District of Columbia is most notably the leader in the push to integrate undocumented immigrants and non-status immigrants alike into the city. In 2022, The D.C. City Council approved Bill 12-1 12-1: Local Resident Voting Rights Amendment Act. The amendment seeks to expand voting rights to anyone in the District of Columbia who meets the residency requirement. If met, regardless of immigration status, any Washington resident over 18 can vote for city mayor, council, attorney general, advisory neighborhood commissioners, and more. It’s important to note that this act pertains only to local elections and not federal ones. Despite being blocked by the House of Representatives, the bill successfully passed after the 30 day waiting period expired in the U.S. Senate. Starting in November 2024 any residents of D.C. will have a say in the government extending voting rights to over 25,000 people District-wide. 


DC has always been a home for immigrants, and we’re grateful for all the ways the city has welcomed us! 


3. There are many amazing organizations supporting refugees and immigrants in DC. 


Throughout DC, and the DMV more broadly, there are many organizations doing remarkable work to uplift immigrant communities. From legal services, employment assistance, educational opportunities, social services and simply advocating for immigrant rights, there’s an organization out there ready to help. In this month’s issue, we want to highlight the great work they are doing to protect immigrant rights. 


We’re especially inspired by five organizations in particular, our “Impact Partners.” We share our space with these local NGOs if they need downtown locations to teach English, hold workshops, legal clinics, and offer job search services. Our Impact Partners are the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, AsylumWorks, Ayuda, Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights (CAIR) Coalition, and the CARECEN (Central American Resource Center). Employing culturally and language-sensitive assistance, our admirable impact partners provide employment assistance, social services, community support, legal protection in domestic violence cases, and even provide services to immigrants inside the detention system. For more information on these organizations, be sure to check out the “Impact Partners” page on our website! 


During the ‘bussing crisis” earlier this year, many organizations were ready. Among those on the frontlines of receiving migrants were Sanctuary DMV, Catholic Charities, SAMU First Response, and Migrant Help DMV.  Organizations such as CARECEN, Ayuda, and Migrant Help DMV created donation sites specifically to assist recently arrived migrants from these Texas and Arizona buses. Local food coops and fashion stores such as Vendedores Unidos Food Coop, Dulce Hogar, and the Outrage provided temporary shelter, hot meals, and clothing and medicine donations to warmly welcome these migrants. While the governors of Texas and Arizona may have pushed these migrants aside, the city of DC welcomed them with dignity, care, and respect. 


Last, we’d also like to mention an admirable organization that develops immigrant skills in the food space.  The Carlos Rosario School has done significant work in educating migrants. Through English language classes, workforce development, and support services, the Carlos Rosario School has taught over 80,000 immigrants in the District of Columbia to help them reach their American Dream. In addition to general English language and basic online skills, the Carlos Rosario School also provides specialized instruction in culinary arts and hospitality, as well as nursing, technology, bilingual education, and construction pre-apprenticeship. 

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