Take a good look at the scope and breadth of the ethnic and racial diversity in Northern Virginia, where students from up to 200 countries populate local schools.
Your community — and your schools — will look a lot like this within the next three decades.
The three fast-growing Virginia counties nestled near the nation’s capital — Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William — are at the leading edge of a diversity explosion sweeping the USA. Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics and Asians have moved to the area since the 1990s and account for 32% of the 1.8 million people in the three counties, triple the number in 1990. Blacks account for another 12%, and multirace residents, 1%.
But this rapid growth in diversity hasn’t arrived without consequences or controversy. Residents have been grappling with everything from a controversial policy to stop illegal immigration in Prince William to a housing squeeze that has pushed thousands of minority families out of Arlington. Fairfax wrestles with finding the funds to teach ever more students who are poorer and need added language training.
“People were not ready and did not know how to handle the change,” says Qian Cai, director of the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia. “But you have to know change is coming, so be prepared and plan for it. … As the white population ages, the younger generation will be multicultural, multiracial. That is just a demographic fact.”
On the plus side, multiethnic families are boosting the regional economy by buying homes, opening businesses and shopping locally. They bring a richness of language, tradition and food that are evident in local shopping centers where African fufu — pounded yams, cassava or plaintains — can be had alongside Salvadoran pupusas — corn or rice tortillas stuffed with cheese, meat and beans — and Vietnamese pho, a noodle soup.
USA TODAY used Census data to calculate the chance that two random people are different by race or ethnicity and came up with a Diversity Index to place every county on a scale of 0 to 100. The nationwide Index reached 55 in 2010, up sharply from 20 in 1960 and 40 as recently as 1990.
All three of the Virginia counties topped the national average. In Fairfax, the index is 64; in Prince William, 69. In Arlington, it dipped to 55 in 2010 as some minorities relocated. It was the only county in Northern Virginia to drop.
The diversity boom here started in earnest in the 1980s when conflicts abroad, from civil war in El Salvador to a Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, led a wave of immigrants to the USA. The number of foreign-born residents in Northern Virginia rose from 177,000 in 1990 to 463,000 in 2010 — 27% of the region’s population.
And many of them are highly educated minorities, particularly Asians. Almost 10% of adults in the three counties speak an Asian language at home and have at least a bachelor’s degree and, in many cases, a high-paying job.
And those “highly educated, high-paying jobs also bring low-paying jobs because you need people to clean homes, take care of children, mow the lawn, these things come in tandem,” says the University of Virginia’s Cai.
So the new immigrants stayed. And had families. And more friends and relatives followed them. And they stayed, leading to a wide range of repercussions.
Fassil Berhe began noticing the trend five years ago: affordable apartments were being renovated or knocked down to make way for expensive luxury units.
He’d been in Arlington since 2000, hoping it would be the last stop in a journey that began when he fled civil disorder in his native Ethiopia in the late 1980s.
A brother who lived in Arlington enticed him to resettle there with promises of steady work. By then, Berhe had a wife and young son. He found work as a cab driver, and the family settled in a mixed-income area known for its vibrant Bolivian and Salvadoran community. They paid $1,300 a month for a one-bedroom apartment.
Arlington, Va., cab driver Fassil Berhe.Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
But when their daughter came along in 2003, the family needed a bigger space and everything was too expensive.
“You can’t afford to live there,” he says. “You need to be earning $80,000, $90,000.”
Berhe was making about $40,000 as a cab driver and his wife worked a minimum-wage retail job. So the family moved to nearby Fairfax County, where rents were cheaper.
Berhe’s family is typical of the one-in-five Hispanic and black households that move out of Arlington because it is too expensive, according to the county. Average rents have nearly doubled from $1,000 in 2000 to $1,900 in 2013.
The people feeling it most are blacks and Hispanics, who have much lower incomes. Black households in Arlington have a median income of $59,200; Hispanics, $62,500; and whites who are not Hispanic, $116,800.
“There is a divide,” says Dennis Jaffe, executive director of BRAVO, a tenants advocacy group. “People are getting squeezed out.”
The housing problem came to the fore in the late 1990s when a post-World War II housing complex called Arna Valley, home to 3,000 mostly Hispanic immigrants, was torn down. In its place came new luxury apartments.
And the trend continued as more high-rises and expensive townhouses went up. Wealthy, white 25- to 34-year-olds moved in and more blacks and Hispanics moved out. Census data show the combined black and Hispanic population shrank 7% from 2000 to 2010. The ranks of non-Hispanic whites grew by 16%.
The result is “a housing crisis,” says Mary Rouleau, executive director of the Alliance for Housing Solutions, an education and advocacy group in the county.
County officials are offering tax breaks for developers who include more affordable apartments for families making $82,000 or less. The county also has a $12.5 million fund to build or renovate affordable apartments.
“We need to let people who are low-income have at least a chance to live in our community,” says J. Walter Tejada, a member of the Arlington County Board, who fought unsuccessfully to keep the affordable units in Arna Valley.
The county’s efforts have fallen short so far. Between 2000 and 2013, the county’s affordable housing program created fewer than 3,000 units. The county lost 15,000 units during the same time.
“It’s a losing battle,” says Rolf Pendall, director of the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. “And it’s true all over the region.”
“If you want to see what the future of the U.S. will look like, come to any elementary school in Fairfax County,” says Ted Velkoff, a member of the Fairfax County School Board.
Weyanoke Elementary on the eastern edge of the county stands out. Located in one of the county’s most diverse neighborhoods, the school of 500 kindergartners through fifth-graders is made up of 15% Asian students, 30% black, 45% Hispanic and 8% white — and their families hail from 43 countries.
The richness of the diversity is the reason Debra and Ralph Johnson left Arlington and moved to the Lincolnia Park area eight years ago. The Johnsons, who are white, adopted three children from Guatemala: Maria, Tony and Jose. Debra Johnson ticks off the backgrounds of their neighbors on a street a block from the school: Taiwanese, Bolivian, Salvadoran, Peruvian and African-American.
Debra and Ralph Johnson, who adopted three children from Guatemala, chose the diverse Lincolnia Park area of Fairfax County, Va., to live.H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
“We wanted to make sure our children would see people like them,” says Debra Johnson.
That diversity is reflected in Stacey Callaman’s second-grade class at Weyanoke. Almost all of her 21 students — like 65% of the school — don’t speak English as their primary language at home. That changes how she and her colleagues teach. She uses more visual aids and spends more time explaining concepts that are foreign to many students, such as what a prairie is or how farms work.
Much of the school’s focus is teaching students to speak, read and write English, says principal Annette Almedina-Cabrera. “My children need extra support.”
But that costs money. The district spends $3,454 for each student in its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program, which totaled $66 million in fiscal year 2014. At Weyanoke, almost eight of every 10 students qualify for free and reduced meals.
Over the past eight years, the school district’s enrollment has grown by 20,000, most of them children from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. The district plans to add five elementary schools over the next five years.
The district faced a $190 million budget gap this year that it closed with $100 million in cuts and last-minute increases from the county Board of Supervisors. The district has no taxing power, so it relies on the state and county for funding.
It helps that Fairfax is one of the richest counties in the USA with a median household income of $109,000.
Weyanoke Elementary School teacher Stacey Callaman talks about her experience teaching in a diverse school in one of the most diverse areas of Virginia’s Fairfax County.Kate Patterson for USA TODAY
But the expense pays off with an educated workforce, Velkoff says. “It’s in all of our best interest to have a high quality of life for everyone.”
And the diversity at school will have a lasting impact on how students see race and ethnicity in an increasingly diverse world, says Almedina-Cabrera.
“We believe there is a culture richness here that is something they will carry forth,” she says. “Our kids do not see color. They see a friend. They see classmates.”
This rural exurb of D.C. knows firsthand how the arrival of different ethnic groups can sow the seeds of disruption.
In 2007, a meteoric rise in the Latino population led the Board of County Supervisors to adopt a policy requiring police to check the immigration status of any person they stopped whom they suspected was here illegally.
What followed was a fierce battle that split the community along political, ideological and racial lines.
“2007 was a sad chapter in the history of Prince William County,” says Carlos Castro, a resident and owner of a chain of supermarkets that cater to immigrant residents.
Seemingly overnight, the Latino population, made up mostly of Salvadorans and Mexicans, stopped growing. While there are no official numbers for illegal immigrants, the University of Virginia estimates that 2,000 to 6,000 left during the height of the conflict between 2006 and 2008. The Hispanic population, which had doubled between 2001 and 2007 to hit 69,000, had grown just 2% more by 2009.
In the face of heated opposition, the supervisors amended the policy in 2008 to require police to check the immigration status only of any person they arrested and took into custody, not anyone they stopped.
Since that change in approach, the Hispanic population has grown another 33%, topping 94,000 last year. Today, the once predominantly white county is a “majority-minority” community where more than half of the residents — 56% — are Hispanic, black or Asian.
“A lot of new families have come,” says Maddie Lupo, director of social ministry at Holy Family Catholic Church in Woodbridge. “People are not afraid anymore. … And you see more of a sense of welcome.”
More affordable housing has helped, too. Suburban apartment complexes and townhouses have taken over much of what had been wooded land.
The county’s diversity has seeped into every facet of daily life. You see it in the faces in Todos Supermarket, which imports products that cater to Hispanics, Asians, Africans and those from the Middle East. You see it in the county’s first cricket field, built this year,and in the overflow crowd at Holy Family, where 60% of parishioners come from other countries.
Police Chief Steve Hudson says his force is changing too. Eleven percent of the department’s 1,169 officers are people of color.
“I don’t think you can effectively police at a high level unless you attempt to match the makeup of your community,” Hudson says. “You need cultural understanding.”
Carlos Castro founded Todos Supermarkets, which specializes in Hispanic foods and services, in 1990 — the same year he became a citizen. He immigrated in 1980.Jack Gruber, USA TODAY
Hudson says the police department was against the immigration policy, but its officers became the public face of it because they were responsible for enforcement.
The department still has a way to go. A 2008 survey of residents found 73% of Hispanics were satisfied with the police, down from 97% in 2005. This year, only 66% of Hispanic residents were satisfied with the police.
“There’s a lot of apprehension with change,” says Corey Stewart, the county board chairman who pushed for the 2007 policy. “It’s tough at first. It’s disconcerting.”
Stewart says he supported the policy because he is against illegal immigration. He said residents were concerned about loitering, public drunkenness and other nuisances that they blamed on new immigrants.
He credits the policy with changing the population of Hispanics in the county from single men to families. Census data show that 61% of Hispanic households are married couples, up from 53% in 2007.
But Stewart acknowledges that it created a deep rift in the community.
“When I started this, I was more ideological,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a conservative, but you have to change with your community.”