Where do Seattleites come from?

Not from local hospitals, that's for sure. The city also is undergoing a remarkable surge of foreign-born and refugees.
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The Roosevelt Cambodian Dance Troupe, at World Refugee Day at Seattle Center

Not from local hospitals, that's for sure. The city also is undergoing a remarkable surge of foreign-born and refugees.

Seattle has gone through periods of extensive growth and change. As the city finishes the first decade of Century 21, there are notable differences from the Seattle at the end of the 20th. For one thing, natives seem to be a vanishing species. In their place, Seattle is home to an increasing number of immigrants and refugees from overseas. In other words, if you ask a Seattleite where they were born, you're less likely to hear "Virginia Mason hospital" or even "Mt. Vernon," and more likely to hear "Somalia."

Let's turn the clock back to 1980, the last time native-born Washingtonians were the largest population block in the city of Seattle, according to the U.S. census numbers (the numbers aren't broken down by birth city, but by birth state). In 1980, Seattle residents who were born in Washington made up 44 percent of Seattle population; 43.5 percent were born in another state, and 11 percent were foreign born.

Looking at the numbers since (from data provided by the Puget Sound Regional Council), you can see that there's been a steady decline in the Washington native category in Seattle: from 43 percent in 1990 to 38.6 percent in 2000, down to 37.5 according to 2005-7 estimates.

Meanwhile, the percentage of the population made up of U.S. born, non-native Washingtonians has remained steady, at around 42 or 43 percent of the population. Of those, an increasing percentage (from 6 to 9 percent) are Californians. There probably are as many or more Californians as there are blacks in Seattle. The numbers are small, but the allegations of "Californication" have some hint of validity. Oregon natives, on the other hand, aren't coming in bunches: They remain at 2-3 percent of Seattle's population.

But the number of foreign born Seattleites has been on the rise, from 11 percent in 1980 to 15 percent in '90 to 18 percent in 2000 to 20 percent by '05-07, a near doubling in 30 years. The origins of those Seattleites who come from overseas have changed too. Here are Seattle's largest groups of the foreign-born since 1990:


Europe Other (not including UK or former Soviet Union): 2.4%

Philippines: 2.4%

Southeast Asia: 2.2%

China/Hong Kong: 1.3%

Canada: 1.2%

Korea: .07%


Southeast Asia: 3.2%

Philippines: 2.5 %

Europe Other: 2.3%

Central/South Asia: 1.9%

China/Hong Kong: 1.7%

Central America/Caribbean: 1.4%


Southeast Asia: 3%

Central/South Asian: 2.8%

Mexico: 2.1%

China/Hong Kong: 2.1%

Philippines: 2%

Europe Other: 1.8%

Among the notable trends is the recent growth in the Mexican population, up from a mere .03 percent in '90 to 1.4 percent in 2000 to 2.1 percent in '05-7.

Another group on the rise: those born in Central/South Asian. They made up .04 percent of the population in '90, 2 percent in 2000, and nearly 3 percent in '05-07.

And yet another surging group, though still a small percentage overall, are immigrants from Africa, which equaled Mexicans in '90 at .03 percent, climbed to 1.3 percent in 2000, and hit 1.7 percent in '05-7, nearly matching the number of Seattleites of European origin.

The growth in foreign-born residents in the Seattle metro area has been significantly driven by refugees, according to the Brookings Institution staffers who wrote "Seattle: Still Yearning to be Free" in 2006:

From 1983 to 2004, the Seattle region ranked No. 5 nationally in the resettlement of refugees, behind the big immigrant gateways of New York, Los Angeles and Orange County in California, and Chicago. However, Seattle's total foreign-born ranking is only 23rd, as refugees there comprise much more of the immigrant population than most other places around the country.

The region's refugee population is probably more important to the growth of the region than in other places. And it has been growing over the past 20 years.

Of the some 50,000 refugees resettled in Seattle over that period, fully one-third are from Southeast Asia — including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — and 42 percent come from the remnants of the USSR.

In the current mayor's race, the Seattle Times reports that both candidates, Joe Mallahan (Everett, WA) and Mike McGinn (Long Island, NY), have said they'd like their administrations to mirror Seattle. If so, it's going to be a bit complicated. Out of their first 100 appointees, roughly 68 would be white, 8 black, 1 Native American, 14 Asian, 6 Latino, and 3 of other races, according to the city's website. On top of that, 43 should be born in America, but outside of Washington; 37 should be Evergreen State natives, and 20 born overseas, including one Canadian and one Korean.

Of course, there will be updated numbers after the big census in 2010, and that will tell us if the trend away from Washington natives is continuing. In the meantime, locals might want to figure out which Seattle native will in charge of turning out the lights on their dwindling species.

The numbers from this story are from U.S. census figures and estimates. For 1990, 2000, and 2005-7 the numbers were gathered from Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAS) that correspond to Seattle city proper. There is a margin of error on estimates, and some numbers have been rounded. The data was collected and provided by Neil Kilgren, senior planner with the Puget Sound Regional Council.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.