SILVER SPRING, Maryland – Christina Getrich has lived in Maryland for most of her life and has witnessed the state’s changing demographics over time.
A large number of Salvadoran immigrants began settling in Montgomery County when she was younger, said Getrich, who lives in Silver Spring. Today, while Salvadorans are still the largest foreign-born population in the county, groups from countries such as India and Ethiopia also have sizable populations.
“We all get so much from the presence of those people,” said Getrich, a professor and anthropologist at the University of Maryland whose interests include immigration and citizenship. “Here, we just have such a range of different people from different places. We’re lucky in the D.C. area.”
America’s melting pot culture has seen an estimated 59 million immigrants over the past 50 years, according to the Pew Research Center, but this uptick in diversity took hundreds of years to take shape.
People all over the world left their native countries for the United States after war, famine or persecution, or simply in search of a better future in what is perceived to be the land of opportunity.
“There’s no doubt that immigrants have made America what it is today,” said Elizabeth Keyes, an assistant law professor and director of the Immigrants Rights Clinic at the University of Baltimore.
In 2013, 13 percent of the U.S. population — or more than 40 million people living in the U.S. — were foreign-born, according to data from the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. And by 2055, no race or ethnicity will hold a majority, the data said.
Maryland’s foreign-born population has grown dramatically. Of the 10 most diverse cities in America, three are located in the state: Gaithersburg, Germantown and Frederick, according to a 2016 WalletHub study.
Immigrants favor Maryland for reasons such as its educational opportunities, said Jeanne Batalova, a senior analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
U.S. News and World Report reported in April that Maryland high schools ranked the best in the nation for the third year in a row.
Once an ethnic community settles in a particular area, other members of that group tend to come to the same place later on, fueling a larger population of that demographic and contributing to greater migration in Maryland, Getrich added.
“Communities establish themselves, and then it’s a self-generating process,” Getrich said. “Throughout the area, we see the settlement of particular groups and areas in interesting ways.”
Among metropolitan areas with more than 1 million residents, the Washington region ranked eighth in foreign-born residents, with about 22 percent of residents from other nations. Twenty-seven percent of people in the national capital region over age 5 spoke a language other than English at home, according to a report released by the U.S. Census Bureau as part of its 2011 American Community Survey.
While 28 percent of the nation’s legal immigrants come from Latin America, El Salvador is the most popular country of origin for legal immigrants in Maryland. Salvadorans — who make up 24.3 percent of Hispanics in Maryland — represent the largest part of the state’s Hispanic community, followed by Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, according to the Department of Legislative Services.
Immigrants and migrants have shaped multiple aspects of life in Maryland, such as the economy, education, medicine and politics. Historically, many of America’s immigrants were blue-collar workers, but today’s migrants in Maryland include workers of all skill levels, ranging from service workers to doctors, Keyes said.
Occupations such as painting, construction and maintenance have the highest share of foreign-born workers in Maryland, with 63.4 percent of workers born outside the U.S., according to New American Economy, which aims to support changes to immigration policy, including securing the nation’s borders and increasing enforcement to prevent illegal immigration, and create American jobs.
Specifically, Hispanic immigrants in Maryland — who live mostly in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties — paid $1.6 billion in taxes, and the state’s median household income for Hispanics is the highest in the nation, the DLS reported.
Sixty-two percent of the state’s maids and household workers, and 55.4 percent of medical and life scientists in Maryland, are foreign-born, according to NAE.
But with President Donald Trump’s administration, Getrich said she is “very worried” about the future of migrant communities in the United States and how they may be affected by national policies.
“We know that migration is a phenomenon that is present in our world, so to me, what would be better is investing in immigrant communities and families and children to go onto make even more contributions to society,” she said.
Trump, however, has pursued policies that have alarmed immigrant communities and organizations advocating for immigrants.
In January, the president ordered a travel ban barring immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
“This is not about religion – this is about terror and keeping our country safe,” Trump said in a statement. “There are over 40 different countries worldwide that are majority Muslim that are not affected by this order.”
After various court challenges, the Supreme Court on Tuesday allowed most of the ban to remain in effect temporarily. The court next month will hear arguments over the constitutionality of the scope of the ban.
The president has proposed a new border wall with Mexico but appears to have backed off on pressing Congress for action now. Trump also has promoted a “get tough” policy on those not in the country legally and his administration has rescinded legal protections for children of undocumented immigrants put in place by an executive order by President Barack Obama. Instead, the president appears to support congressional efforts to make those protections permanent by passing a new law.
The tone of the Trump administration’s immigration policies unsettles some observers.
“I grew up thinking that a strength of the United States was the way in which we welcome people from different cultures,” said Julie Greene, a history professor at the University of Maryland and a historian of subjects including U.S. labor and immigration. “It’s very hard to imagine this country without the incredible role played by immigrants.”
“The current president does not believe that immigration has been such a positive force,” Batalova said. “He thinks America is just for Americans. Those included in that (are) just a slice of American society.”
Some Maryland policymakers and local organizations also have responded to Trump’s proposals with efforts to protect members of the immigrant community. Legislators moved to pass the Maryland Trust Act, which would bar police from complying with federal immigration enforcement efforts.
While the bill did not pass the Maryland General Assembly, cities such as Takoma Park and Hyattsville have adopted official “sanctuary city” status, and others have enacted similar practices, one example of “federal policies and efforts being mitigated by policies adopted by states,” Batalova said.
Organizations such as CASA, the Baltimore Resettlement Center and the Maryland Office for Refugees and Asylees have offered resources to members of the migrant community settled in Maryland.
“There’s things we can do for people,” Keyes said. “There’s a lot of small things that can be done, too, and people are doing them.”