Changing county, changing faces

Demographics: According to the U.S. Census, more than 28,000 foreign-born residents live in Howard County.

March 23, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

When Larry Madaras began teaching history at Howard Community College 33 years ago, his classes primarily were filled with white students.

These days, Madaras' students are all races and nationalities. "If I have a class of 25 students, at least five or six are Asian or Hispanic. It's great," he said.

The changing face of Madaras' classroom is a microcosm of Howard County's changing demographics. According to the U.S. Census, more than 28,000 foreign-born residents from more than 50 countries live in Howard County, more than live in Baltimore City or Anne Arundel County, both of which are more populous than Howard.

"If you're living in [Baltimore], you're scrounging for a job. If you come to Howard County, you can probably find one. I'd come to Howard County," said Madaras, a history professor who studies the county's demographics.

The largest immigrant group is from Asia, according to the U.S. Census. Nearly 19,000 Asian immigrants live in the county, an almost 136 percent increase from 1990, according to the 2000 Census.

Koreans are the most populous, numbering about 4,700. About 3,000 are from India and nearly 2,600 county residents were born in China.

Most of the Asian immigrants are comfortably middle class: Their median household income is nearly $67,500 a year, compared with the countywide average of nearly $75,000.

Most Asians locate in Howard County because of the area's highly regarded school system. In Korean-language newspapers, Realtors occasionally will advertise that they have homes in Howard County's district to entice potential buyers.

"For the Korean and Chinese people, their No. 1 reason is the education of their children," said Young-Chan Han, the family outreach liaison for English for Speakers of Other Languages in the school district.

As Asians flock to Howard County, they have brought an influx of ethnic businesses to the area. A Lotte supermarket, which specializes in Korean food, replaced the Fresh Fields at U.S. 40 and U.S. 29. Two Korean language newspapers have opened bureaus in the area and a thriving Chinese school meets every Sunday at Howard Community College.

"People are becoming more and more used to life here," said Eun Soon Kim, a registered nurse who runs the Emmanuel Care Center, a small nursing home in Ellicott City that caters to the Korean community.

As long as the school system maintains its reputation, most expect the Asian influx to continue. Han said she often receives calls from families from Baltimore, Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties asking about schools.

Asian immigrants also are trying to get involved with mainstream politics. The Korean-American Community Association and the Muslim Council of Howard County held fund-raisers for County Executive James N. Robey during the last election cycle.

"Part of showing who we are as Muslims is becoming involved in mainstream events that have nothing to do with religion," said Mohammed Saleem, a River Hill resident who is a member of the Muslim Council.

While Asians have settled into a comfortable middle-class life in Howard County, the county's nearly 7,000 Hispanic immigrants have struggled.

Instead of settling in single-family homes in affluent areas like River Hill, more Hispanics live in the older villages of Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake and have lower-paying jobs, according to census data.

"They come here for jobs, for the promise of a better life ... but it's always a struggle," said Jorge Fonseca, pastor of the Iglesia de Cristiana Church in Oakland Mills.

Hispanic homeowners make less than their Asian or white counterparts, according to the U.S. Census. The average Hispanic household makes nearly $63,000 a year, according to the census, almost $4,000 a year less than Asians.

Many of the Hispanic population's difficulties arise from immigration problems, local leaders say.

Some local leaders estimate that 15,000 Hispanics live in the county, many of them without proper documents, which means they have a hard time finding high-paying jobs or organizing a political lobby.

While hundreds attended Muslim and Korean-American fund-raisers, fewer than five Hispanics attended a meeting with Democratic candidates last summer.

"There's a lack of organization within the community," Fonseca said.

Hispanics lacking proper immigration documents also have trouble opening bank accounts or obtaining driver's licenses.

Many ride their bikes to work and carry cash home in their pockets, making them attractive robbery targets, community leaders say. "A lot of people live in fear," said Bonny Knight, a senior counselor at the Foreign Born Information and Referral Network, a group that assists immigrants.

Exacerbating the problem are tensions between the Hispanic and African-American communities. When Antonio Ayala was found dead in a wooded area in Long Reach in May last year, many Hispanics blamed blacks, community leaders said.

Even after Ayala's three Hispanic roommates were arrested in the killing, black and Hispanic community leaders called a meeting to try and dispel the distrust between the groups.

"It wasn't a secret that there was a problem between the African-Americans and the Latinos," said John T. Shaia, the director of community outreach for the predominantly black Long Reach Church of God.

After a series of meetings between black and Hispanic leaders, both sides say they believe the groups have put the problems behind them.

"People will make a lot of compromises to live in a place like Howard County," Fonseca said.

Fonseca and others believe that the Latino population will be more prosperous as it puts down roots in Howard County.

"We're at the beginning of a long relationship with Howard County," Fonseca said.

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