Seattle and Portland still rank among the whitest cities in the country. If life doesn’t regularly take you to Tukwila or the Rainier Valley or Bethany or Hillsboro, it’s entirely possible to miss the region’s incredible growth in foreign-born residents.

Occasionally, though, the magnitude of these changes hits you. On my first day as a writing tutor in a local English Language Learning class, a boy handed me a very short story. His fifth-grade class of recent immigrants—Somali girls wearing headscarves, Hispanic kids chattering in Spanish and Mixtec, Burmese and Iraqi students—had been assigned to write something about their life. These aren’t his exact words, but this is how I recall the story that made me realize how ill equipped I was to offer any useful advice:

My mother asked if I was hungry. I said yes. She went to get food and fell down. I shook her. She was dead.

He didn’t offer many details at first, but I later gathered that he arrived as a refugee from Eritrea with what was left of his family.  It’s not an uncommon path to Washington State, which typically ranks among top 10 states for resettling refugees as they arrive in the US. That accounts for part of the state’s astonishing rise in foreign-born residents, as do recruitment practices at high-tech companies or research departments looking for international talent.

  • The number of foreign-born residents in Washington State rose from 322,154 in 1990 to 886,252 in 2010. That’s a nearly 275 percent increase over the last 20 years. In Oregon, during that same time period, the foreign-born population grew from 139,307 to 375,473, only a slightly smaller percentage increase. It’s a remarkable transformation, especially since the demographic changes tend to be concentrated and magnified in particular communities. They’re usually the ones that offer affordable housing and reasonable access to jobs, whether that means coding for Microsoft, doing cancer research, packing fruit, selling gum at the airport, vacuuming planes, or butchering fish.

    Mark Ellis, director of the Northwest Census Research Data Center at the University of Washington, calls it the “new geography of immigrants.”

    They traditionally moved into run down urban areas and then moved out to the suburban areas, in the “moving out, moving up” traditional American pattern. Now they’re skipping the inner city and going straight to the burbs because central city areas are attractive again. If places like the Central District or Beacon Hill in Seattle were not gentrifying, you’d see higher foreign-born populations but they’ve become expensive. The same process is happening lots of places.

    So where are these magnets for international migration? Here are the Washington cities and CDPs (Census-designated places) where at least one in four residents is now foreign-born:

    WA cities with high foreign-born population

    (For a larger view of the chart, click here.)

    And here are Oregon cities and CDPs with the highest percentages of foreign-born residents:

    Oregon cities with high foreign-born population

    (For a larger view of this chart, click here.)

    Most places fall into two categories: Agricultural communities in Eastern Washington and Oregon whose foreign-born residents are almost exclusively Hispanic, and diverse suburbs outside of Seattle or Portland where the languages spoken by kids in the public school system might number in the hundreds.

    But the patterns in the two states aren’t entirely consistent. To start, Washington has a higher percentage of immigrants than Oregon. According to the 2010 Census (which admittedly isn’t the greatest in capturing an accurate picture of immigrant and refugee populations) foreign-born residents now make up 13 percent of the state’s population. In King County, the number is nearly 19.8 percent. Compared to many other states, Washington’s immigrants are more diverse, with a smaller share of Hispanics dominating the foreign-born population. (Note: Only about 40 percent of the state’s Hispanic residents are foreign-born; many Latinos in King County and elsewhere were born in this country and come from families that have been here for several generations.)

    In Oregon, immigrants make up 9.8 percent of the statewide population, 13.7 percent in Multnomah County and 16.8 percent in Washington County.  A greater share of Oregon’s foreign-born residents have Hispanic or Latino origins (45 percent) than in Washington (31 percent).

    This chart offers more detail about where King County, WA’s foreign-born population comes from:

    Source: South King County’s Changing Demographics, Chandler Felt, King County demographer presentation to SeaTac city council

    And this chart shows the origins of Oregon’s foreign-born population:

    Source: In Search of Opportunity: Foreign-born Residents in Oregon, Portland State University Population Research Center

    Given the cultural similarities between Washington and Oregon, why has one been more successful in attracting a larger share of foreign-born residents, and from a greater range of countries?

    Some people point to history. Oregon in the mid-1800s was settled by farmers who were largely oriented towards eastern US markets. Washington boomed after the Yukon gold rush in the late 1800s and was more outward-looking towards Alaska and Asia.

    Ellis, at the University of Washington, thinks a lot of it boils down to simple economics. In Washington State, there are more jobs, wages tend to be higher, and unemployment levels have been lower. Puget Sound’s growing foreign-born population has also been driven by software and biotech powerhouses poaching talent from China, India, and other foreign countries. (Which is also true of Oregon’s solar and high-tech industries, but perhaps to a lesser extent.) And demand for skilled agricultural workers is so high than asparagus farmers are letting their fields go unpicked for lack of labor. Ellis said:

    The economy here is just so much more vibrant—I think that’s a huge part of it. Seattle attracts its own share of people who want to live in a tolerant diverse place but it also has Amazon, it has Boeing and it has Microsoft  and when they hire people those people demand all sorts of services. Portland has built a reputation as having all these amenities—light rail and things that hipsters and 20 something and 30 something white college-educated people love—but what if there are no jobs? How long can you attract people?

    Washington also has a long history of welcoming refugees, from the first post-Vietnam waves of Southeast Asians to people fleeing persecution after the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia to those now seeking refuge from conflicts around the globe. In 2010, Washington ranked #8 in US states providing initial resettlement services for refugees, while Oregon ranked #24.

    Although refugees account for a small percentage of immigrants, once an initial group of people from Burma or Ethiopia or the Ukraine establishes a beachhead in a particular community, it tends to balloon. In fact, Washington State ranks second in the US in attracting refugees who initially settled somewhere else but decided to move here because of relatives, word of mouth, state support, mild weather, groceries that offer familiar foods, or news outlets in their native language. As King County demographer Chandler Felt put it:

    The refugee population is only about 10 or 20 percent of the foreign-born population in King County, but they kind of set the tone. If you have refugees from a southeast Asian country being helped to arrive here, others tend to follow. So it expands. The refugees have a more important effect than their numbers would indicate.

    It also helps explain why some areas of the Portland and Seattle metro areas have become far more diverse while others have stayed nearly as white as ever. Immigrants tend to cluster in neighborhoods at first, establishing grocery stores, travel agencies, churches or mosques, financial services and health practitioners that cater to that community’s customs and everyday needs. At the same time, when I take my daughter to playgrounds near our house in north Seattle, I typically do not run into kids who tell me about the day their mother crumpled in front of the cooking fire and died. Maybe in another 20 years, that picture will look different too.