WHEATON – Immigrants made up 6.6 percent of Maryland’s population in 1990, nearing the highs of the first decades of the century when Russians, Poles, Irish and Italians flocked to here to provide labor for the industries in the state.
Today’s immigrants still come for economic opportunity or to escape turmoil back home, but the similarities end there. Foreign-born Marylanders now are as likely to include professionals as laborers and they are much more likely to be Hispanic, Asian or African than European.
A stroll through the Wheaton Triangle shopping area proves the point.
Metro TV and Video is the second electronics shop that Carlos Velasco has owned since coming from Peru for what he thought would be a short stay in 1968. Charles Kassis, a 1956 emigrant from Palestine, can relax in Ayda’s Hair Salon, which is owned by his wife.
Rahamut Hosein came to this country from Trinidad in 1967 and opened Caribbean Foods and Records six months ago with his wife, Gandaye, “because there was no West Indian carryout here.” Today, Caribbean Christmas carols play in store, where expatriates can get everything from compact discs to curried chicken and beef.
Bennett’s House of Flowers is owned by Nikita Chernyakov and his stepmother, Tanya Yefimova, who came here after the Iron Curtain fell.
“When I came here I liked it,” said Chernyakov. “Every country has its negative and positive sides. It’s a great country with all its negative sides.”
The U.S. Census Bureau said there were more than 313,000 foreign-born residents in Maryland in 1990, more than half of whom were Hispanic. Most immigrants lived in Montgomery County, which had 141,166 foreign-born residents, followed by Prince George’s County with 69,809, Baltimore County with 32,503 and Baltimore City with 23,467.
“Latin Americans have been moving to Washington, D.C., and Silver Spring and have tried to be Americans,” said Bob Brugger, a senior editor of history and regional books at Johns Hopkins University.
“It wasn’t until about 1980 that Asians and Latin Americans began forming their own communities in Baltimore,” said Brugger. “But there are still the Italian and Irish neighborhoods that existed at the turn of the century as well.”
Baltimore was a magnet then for immigrants, who made up 7.8 percent of the state’s population in 1900.
“The attraction to Baltimore was that it was a city of industry, as with any major port,” said Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University. “Wherever commerce exists there will be jobs.”
In Baltimore, they worked at canneries, factories, shipyards and on the docks. The city was “attractive to mainly Russian Jews and people from Italy, Lithuania and Baltic states in general,” Brugger said.
Immigrants also worked in the coal mines of Western Maryland at the turn of the century, Brugger said. Allegany County had the second highest number of foreign-born residents in the state in 1900.
Immigration peaked at 8.1 percent in 1910, then began a slow slide to a low in 1960 when foreign-born residents accounted for only 3 percent of the state’s population. The drop is blamed on immigration quotas in the first half of the century that heavily favored northern and western Europeans.
But once Europe was rebuilt following World War II, people living there “were happy where they were and the quotas weren’t getting filled,” said Marian Smith, a historian with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “In the post-colonial countries such as Asia and Africa a lot of people were unhappy and willing to move, but their quotas weren’t as high.”
The National Origins Quota System was dropped in 1965 because “it wasn’t working,” Smith said.
“We instituted a preference system based on needed skills for employment available, or for family reunification,” she said. “We wanted to even things out for the rest of the world. This opened up the numbers to Africa and Asia.”
Immigration began climbing again in 1970 and by 1979, 1.1 percent of all immigrants to the United States chose Maryland as their intended state of residence, the highest in more than 40 years.
By then, much of the industry that had attracted earlier generations of immigrants to Baltimore was gone. New generations of immigrants, like most other Maryland residents, began to shift to the suburbs, particularly the suburbs of Washington.
When Velasco came to this country from Peru in 1968, Latinos were still something of a novelty in the Washington area. “I didn’t see too many” Hispanic immigrants, said Velasco, 57. “A lot of people thought I was Greek, Italian or an Arab.”
That soon changed.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that there were 188,278 Latinos living in Maryland in July 1998, more than 60 percent of the state’s total immigrant population. Most of those Hispanics, 86,804, were living in Montgomery County, according to the Census Bureau.
That influx of immigrants has naturally brought greater visibility to those groups and different flavors to American culture, like Hosein’s Caribbean food and music store.
“I think that when there is a large number of people from a particular group it causes a normal pressure and change,” Velasco said. “When there are so many people in one town or state — like it or not — it is going to have an impact.”
Chernyakov said America is “probably the only country where you can not speak the language and make a good living.”
The influx of immigrants has meant greater demands for some services like bilingual education. But the Rev. David Brooks, coordinator of the immigration department for the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, D.C., challenged those who claim immigrants take more than they give to society.
“We’re a nation of immigrants,” said Brooks, whose grandparents came from Italy. “There’s been a significant number of people who have come to this country from all over the world and we have all been enriched by it. To keep people out is to keep their culture out.”