Fairfax Becomes Immigrants’ Gateway

Fairfax Becomes Immigrants’ Gateway

Focus on immigration.

Khatira Alvarez (left), of Springfield, and Laura Simon-Salzer, of McLean, are both visibly moved moments after they have taken the Oath of Allegiance and become naturalized American citizens at a ceremony on July 10, held in the Hayfield Secondary School auditorium.

Khatira Alvarez (left), of Springfield, and Laura Simon-Salzer, of McLean, are both visibly moved moments after they have taken the Oath of Allegiance and become naturalized American citizens at a ceremony on July 10, held in the Hayfield Secondary School auditorium. Photo by Deb Cobb.

Yesuf Beshir spent nearly three years gathering the mountain of paperwork he needed to leave Ethiopia and emigrate to America. Two years ago, he settled in Springfield and now works as a government contractor. In May, he became an American citizen.

During the next month, The Connection Newspapers will feature stories, viewpoints and columns about the significant impact immigrants have in Fairfax County.

  • Part II focuses on immigration and Fairfax County Public Schools;
  • Part III examines politics of immigration;
  • Part IV explores the religious and cultural diversity immigrants bring to Fairfax County.

We encourage your letters and thoughts as we explore this topic.

“The main thing here is democracy, the right to vote,” Beshir said. “You can be what you want in America. You can be president. If you want to be a doctor, you can be a doctor. I tell my daughter that the possibilities in America are endless.”

Shahinaz Hassan of Fairfax, originally from Egypt, also became an American citizen in May. “I am happy for today. Everything gets easier here,” she said.

In 1982, Shami Walia emigrated from India. He was 18 years old, and worked in “every job you can think of” all over Northern Virginia. “I didn’t have anything when I came here, but I worked hard.” He now owns Burke Cigar Shop, a popular cigar lounge that’s become a neighborhood fixture.

Rosemary Osei came to Centreville in 2000 from Ghana. The 22-year-old voted in her first presidential election this month, and works as a special needs teacher in Vienna.

Srikanth Ramachandran came to America 14 years ago from India. In 2002, he founded the Fairfax-based Multivision IT company; by 2007 the company employed 200 people and had $32 million in sales.

Andy Ton came from Vietnam. He now owns Andy’s Barbershop in Vienna, where customers line up out the door on the weekends. Del. Mark Keam (D-35), the first Korean American and the first Asian-born immigrant to serve in the Virginia General Assembly, is one of his regular customers.

Individually, immigrants bring their own talents, culture, hopes, fears, sorrows, skills and needs. Collectively, they have permanently altered the fabric of Fairfax County.

In the span of one generation, Fairfax County has seen an explosion in its immigrant population. In 1970, more than 93 percent of Fairfax County’s population was white and middle-class. In the fall of 1970, a white 6-year-old child beginning elementary school in one of the county’s developing towns—Chantilly, McLean, Vienna, Herndon and Centreville (which did not yet have one major grocery store or drug store)—could look to his left, or look to his right, and see a classroom full of children who, at least 90 percent of the time, looked like him and who spoke English.

By 2010, a child entering elementary school in Fairfax County would almost certainly encounter a classmate who did not speak English as a primary language, and whose parents or grandparents immigrated from places such as Vietnam, India, Korea or a country in Africa.

According to the 2010 U.S. Decennial Census, more than 46 percent of the county’s population are of a racial or ethnic minority, and nearly a third are immigrants.

“I think the migrant population is creating a richness and diversity and really enhancing our culture,” said Frederic Bemak, PhD, director of the Diversity Research and Action Center at George Mason University. He said residents notice changes in obvious ways and subtle ones.


Frederic Bemak.

“There’s a language change; there’s a cultural change; there’s a change as you walk down the street in the communities, there are changes in signs on the storefront because some of them are in different languages . . . or in churches, religious institutions. I hear it all day, ‘It’s not like it used to be.’ Well, it’s not, and that’s positive,” Bemak said.

In comparison—from 1990 to 2010—the United States doubled the number of migrants settling in America.

“By 2020—and this is astounding—the children and adolescents of migrants will comprise one third of the U.S. population… one-third,” Bemak said. “People don’t know that, if we’re talking about children... that’s our future. And if that’s only 2020, imagine what 2040 be like.”

Bemak argues that a healthy process of acculturation and adjustment—when existing cultural features are combined, and new features are generated—is possible, but only when the non-immigrant culture reaches out.

“We know racism and discrimination have an impact on people’s mental health. We say ‘you’ve got to figure out how to be here,’ [The work] is simultaneously with the larger communities. . . . Those issues have to be attended to at the same time we help people adjust, adapt, acculturate,” Bemak said.

Bemak said he disliked the word “tolerance,” because it suggests that we’re just ‘tolerating’ immigrants. “We need to respect and celebrate immigrants,” Bemak said.

Parents often notice the increasing inflow of diverse cultures at their children’s schools. Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield, for example, reflects the increasing diversity of the community in its student body. The school, which opened in 1958 with nearly all white students, now has students from 42 countries who speak more than 34 languages.

In the 2009-2010 school year, according to FCPS, Lee High School's student body was slightly more than 30 percent white, 26 percent Asian, 24 percent Hispanic and about 16 percent black.

“Go to a high school graduation and listen to the names being read. It’s not just Smith and Jones anymore,” said Lee High School parent Paula Montero, who came with her parents from El Salvador when she was 6 years old.

Statistics show the breathtaking breadth of change in diversity and immigration in Northern Virginia:

  • From 2000 until 2010, Fairfax County gained 91,165 immigrants. In 2000, Fairfax County had 237,677 foreign-born residents; in 2010, the number of foreign-born spiked to 328,842, according to the American Community Survey and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2000 Decennial Census,
  • Forty-four percent of Fairfax County elementary school students currently speak a language other than English at home. That’s nearly 40,000 students who go home to households that speak one of more than 100 languages.
  • Among new residents who moved to the county in 2009, nearly half were racial or ethnic minorities, and nearly one-third were immigrants.
  • In the decade from 1990 to 2000, the increase in the number of foreign born in Fairfax communities included: Centreville, 323 percent; Herndon, 168 percent; City of Fairfax, 88 percent, Springfield, 78 percent; Burke, 63 percent; and McLean, 10 percent.
  • 19,301 (6.4 percent) immigrants in Fairfax County are self-employed business owners. This is higher than the 4.1 percent of self-employed business owners who are U.S.-born Americans.

Between 1990 and 2000, Fairfax County became an immigrant gateway—a place immigrants choose as their destination upon entering the United States, according to a 2006 Fairfax County demographic report. The trend continues. In 2010, Kiplinger called Fairfax County one of the nation’s top eight gateways for immigrants.

“Immigrants to this region come from nearly every country in the world, and some localities are home to people from more than 100 countries,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow in metropolitan policy at the Brookings Institution.

Opportunities and Challenges

According to scholars at the Brookings Institute, localities and their residents typically respond in one of two ways to newcomers: they either accommodate diversity or deflect immigrants through policies and procedures.

The rate and intensity of immigrants settling in Fairfax County have pushed community leaders to acknowledge the scope of diversity and address the benefits, as well as the challenges, created by the rapid influx of immigrants.

When R. Scott Silverthorne became the 10th person to serve as mayor of the City of Fairfax in June, he made diversity a talking point, promising to recognize and reflect the city’s growing diversity through representation on the city’s boards and committees.

“It’s no secret that our community continues to diversify,” Silverthorne said during his swearing-in ceremony.

“When former Mayor Rob Lederer graduated high school, our minority population was just over 2 percent. When I graduated high school 10 years later, the minority population was 10 percent. Today, it’s 40 percent,” Silverthorne said, noting that in the Fairfax County school system, more than 100 languages are spoken. “I believe we have turned a blind eye to this trend.”

Sharon Bulova, Fairfax County’s Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, has emphasized and celebrated Fairfax County’s diverse cultures in a number of ways. In 2009, she supported Filipino advocate Corazon Sandoval Foley’s efforts to organize and host the first Naturalization Ceremony in the Fairfax County Government Center.

“Everywhere you look, there are signs of diversity in our community,” Bulova said. “And it’s made us a richer, stronger place. It’s important that Fairfax County is recognized as a community that welcomes people from all backgrounds.”

One of the basic ways that Fairfax County reaches new immigrants is by publishing materials in languages other than English, tailored to specific immigrant communities. For example, the Fairfax County Guide to Emergency Preparedness, as well as many other county brochures, is available in six languages—English, Arabic, Farsi, Korean, Spanish and Vietnamese.

The growing immigration population in Fairfax County has presented some challenges. While the county’s “politics of place” may be welcoming, the realities of rapid change, in particular the challenges and issues low-income immigrants face, can be daunting.

According to a 2006 study, “Unsettling Immigrant Geographies and the Politics of Scale,” the shifting of responsibility from the federal government to localities for the integration, assimilation and social welfare of immigrants has caused frustration and some resentment.

In Fairfax County, slightly more than half of those who are classified as “foreign born” live below the poverty line. Minority students, according to FCPS records, are less likely to graduate from high school on time. The on-time graduation rate for the class of 2010 was 95.6 percent for white students, 94.5 percent for Asian students, 87.5 percent for black students and 75.3 percent for Hispanic or Latino students. On the flip side, Asian students make up more than 60 percent of students admitted through a rigorous admissions process to Fairfax County’s elite magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Immigrants are less likely to have health care coverage. Although immigrants comprise about 30 percent of the county’s total population, they comprise 63.5 percent of the county’s uninsured residents.

Immigrants are also more likely to experience housing discrimination. According to Fairfax County’s Office of Human Rights and Equity Programs (www.fairfaxcounty.gov/ohrep), the agency that enforces fair housing laws in the county, discrimination cases have been on the rise in Fairfax County in the past six years.

“Sadly, housing discrimination is alive and well and we’ve seen an uptick in complaints during the past six years,” said Ken Saunders, executive director of Office of Human Rights and Equity Programs.

Although discrimination based on race remains an issue, Saunders reports that in recent years complaints received by his office are related to national origin or involve disability-related issues.

In contrast to national trends, discrimination based on nationality made up 25.6 percent of complaints from 2008 to 2010. In comparison, about 9 percent of complaints to HUD fall under this category. Discrimination complaints, Saunders said, are not filed by one particular group.

“It runs the gamut. We have complaints from Latin Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders, individuals from the Continent of Africa,” Saunders said. Saunders said Office of Human Rights and Equity Programs does a significant amount of education and outreach to communities with limited English proficiency, by hosting seminars aimed at various ethnic groups and by publishing and disseminating information in a number of languages.

Vibrant Culture through Immigration

Most community leaders and residents in Fairfax County agree the benefits of diversity and immigration outweigh the challenges.

“Fairfax County is proud to be a community in which companies of all descriptions can and do succeed to a greater extent than in the rest of the region, the state or the country,” said Gerald L. Gordon, president and CEO of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.

In September, the county was recognized as a successful market for minority-owned businesses in several national business publication rankings. Businesses owned by Hispanics, African-Americans and women generated nearly $1 billion in revenue and provided more than 1,000 jobs, according to the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.

Eleven Fairfax County-based companies were among the 500 largest Hispanic-owned businesses in the nation based on revenue—more than the total in 40 states, according to HispanicBusiness.com.

The Fairfax County companies comprise 22 from Virginia on the 2012 Hispanic Business 500 list (www.hispanicbusiness.com/research/500/list.asp?ListYear=2012). In the Washington area, eight companies are from Maryland and two are from the District of Columbia.

Together these companies generated $655 million in revenue and employed more than 3,000 workers in 2011, according to Hispanic Business.

Celebrating Other Cultures

There are numerous ways to experience the cultural diversity of Fairfax County, but perhaps one of the most accessible is by attending one of the county’s Naturalization Ceremonies.

“Immigrants bring talent and culture to our community in many ways, and make us who we are,” said Bulova. “Every time I attend one of our Naturalization Ceremonies, I’m reminded of how important diversity is to Fairfax County.”

On May 25, 2012, Bulova presented the Certificates of Naturalization to 75 new Americans in the Fairfax County Government Center. The board room was packed with immigrants and their families from every corner of the globe—Afghanistan, The Congo, Costa Rica, Burma, India, Iran, Iraq, Jamaica, Malaysia, Morocco, Nepal, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Uzbekistan and Vietnam.

“Some of you have endured hardships to arrive at this time and place,” Bulova said in her remarks. “All of you have invested your time, money and efforts to become citizens. Many of you came here to escape war or endless poverty. . . . You who are here today now officially have a seat at that table.”

Samuel DeVera, a captain with the county’s Fire and Rescue Department and a member of the Fairfax County Asian American Firefighters' Association, gave the keynote address, telling the audience his personal story of coming to America from the Philippines when he was 14 years old in 1983. After becoming a paramedic in 1994, he received a Valor award and, in 2010, scored first on the test to become a captain with the Fire and Rescue Department.

“Look at me. The one thing I can say is work hard to make you and your families better,” DeVera said. “If you’re vice president of the company, aim to be president. I’m not here to encourage you; I want to challenge you.”

The room was quiet when U.S. Rep Gerry Connolly (D-11) stepped to the podium.

“My fellow Americans,” Connolly said with gravitas, pausing to let the meaning sink in.

And when it did, 75 immigrants, who had just raised their right hand and taken the Oath of Allegiance to become American citizens, erupted with applause and tears, waving American flags and hugging family members.

“You now join us. . . . Every new wave of immigrants refreshes us, makes us stronger,” Connolly said, leading the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.