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Dominicans are on track to become Philadelphia's largest immigrant group and 3 other takeaways from a new Pew report

Ximena Conde, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

Philadelphia's U.S.-born population has been shrinking for decades but immigration has helped soften that blow.

This won't exactly be news to hard-core population nerds. The U.S. Census Bureau has highlighted this dynamic in almost every population data release of recent years. In 2022, 15.7% of the city's more than 1.5 million residents reported being born outside the United States, the highest share in eight decades.

Still, a report published by the Pew Charitable Trusts Thursday uses census data to dive into the rhythms and trends seen among the city's immigrant populations.

Not all corners of the city are affected by influxes in immigration to the same degree, said Thomas Ginsberg, a senior officer at Pew who coauthored the report with Maridarlyn Gonzalez. But as someone who subscribes to the idea that "demography is destiny," Ginsberg thinks it's important to study trends to try and see what Philadelphia could look like long-term.

"The demographic makeup of a city is who we are, it's the face of the city, it shapes our culture, it shapes our cuisine, it shapes the way we interact with each other, the languages we use," he said.

Here are four takeaways from the report.

Philly's Latino population is becoming more diverse

It's 2000. Allen Iverson is a Sixer, low-rise jeans are peak fashion, and 85% of Philadelphia's population identifies as white or Black.

Some 130,000 people identify as Latino in Philadelphia. Notably, about 71% of those Latinos were Puerto Rican and 13% were foreign-born.

Fast forward 22 years and white and Black residents make up 72% of Philadelphians.

The Latino population almost doubled, exceeding 252,000 people — and the makeup looked drastically different. Puerto Ricans only accounted for 55% of the population and 22% of Latinos reported being foreign-born. Newcomers born in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Guatemala, and Colombia led the surge in those years.

¿Qué lo que? What's up?: Dominicans on pace to become city's largest immigrant group

Excluding Hong Kong and Taiwan, China has long been one of the top countries of origin for foreign-born immigrants in Philadelphia, helping the number of foreign-born Asian immigrants more than triple since 2000.

Between 2018 and 2022, about 24,400 people reported being from China, or about 1 in 10 of immigrants in the city.

The Dominican Republic, however, was not far behind, becoming the second-highest country of origin for the same period with about 22,800 people. According to Pew, Dominicans are on track to become the city's largest immigrant group.

Philly not a "global destination" but a sensible second choice for immigrants


While cities like New York and Boston are direct landing spots for immigrant newcomers, Philadelphia tends to be more of a secondary destination, which researchers say speaks to the city's affordability and established immigrant communities.

Among immigrants who have been in the country for a year or less in the past decade, almost half have not come to Philly directly from abroad.

But where they're coming from may surprise you, with Montgomery County being the top county of origin for immigrant populations between 2018 and 2022, followed by Kings County (Brooklyn) in New York, Delaware County, and Bronx County. These counties were also the top destinations for immigrants leaving the city.

The Northeast: Immigration hotspot

While places like Chinatown in Center City or the Italian Market in South Philly may command media attention for their rich tapestry of immigrant communities, the Northeast touts an equally rich demographic breakdown, with a long history of "the largest concentration and variety of immigrants," according to Pew.

The Northeast has concentrations of Dominicans, Jamaicans, Haitians, Egyptians, Moroccans, Albanians, and Ukrainians, along with other immigrants from post-Soviet countries. The largest concentration of Chinese immigrants is not in Chinatown but in the Lower Northeast.

In the 2018 to 2022 period, the Somerton and Oxford Circle sections of the city had the highest percentages of immigrants per capita.

What does this mean for our population race?

For Philly boosters, the ebbs and flows in immigrant populations are not nothing. The U.S.-born population has been shrinking since the 1950s, dipping to 1.32 million in 2022 — the lowest since 1910.

The City of Brotherly Love has remained on the list of the 10 largest cities thanks to a boost of immigrants calling the city home, though we are still losing the population tug-of-war with perennial rival Phoenix.

A declining population raises questions about the future of the city's tax base and overall health.

The billion-dollar question is whether the city can continue to rely on immigration for growth. That will depend on whether Philly can attract more immigrants, something not entirely in its control — there was a drop in immigration from 2017 to 2020 amid changing immigration policy.

There's also the question of whether the children of immigrants will choose to stay in the city.

"It's a key question, actually," said Ginsberg. "Will Philadelphia attract and keep, not just the immigrants, but their children also?"

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