Global Perspective on Regional Collaboration

On any given weekend, there are countless community events throughout the Greater Washington region, many in ethnically diverse immigrant communities. A Korean church service, an Indian American business conference, a Chinese choral concert and an Iranian Nowruz celebration, whether held in Maryland or Virginia, all draw crowds from the Region’s many counties and cities on both sides of the Potomac River. These “new communities,” as we are often called, frequently travel across county and state lines to be connected with our own communities to worship, to learn, and to have a good time. These activities and events add much vitality to local living.

The Washington Metropolitan area is one of the most transient metropolises in the country, with transplants and migrants defining and redefining much of the local demographic landscape. In fact, in Montgomery County, where I live and work, one in three residents are from other countries and three out of four are from other states. What attracted many of us from other states or countries to this region was economic and career opportunities and a good quality of life afforded by a metropolitan area. Immigrants like me have no roots in this country and will pursue opportunities wherever they are.

Since 1990, the Washington region’s immigrant population has doubled to about one million people, earning us the name “Edge Gateway”—a phrase used by the Brookings Institution to refer to a region relatively new to immigration but now has a sizable immigrant population. The area’s industry make-up means much of the immigrant workforce is made of high-skilled professionals critical to this region’s economic vitality and our country’s leadership in information technology, life sciences, healthcare, as well as defense, homeland security and other industries where large numbers of talents in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) are needed and advanced degrees are commonplace.

It is no secret that the Asian community, which is three quarters foreign-born, is among the best educated of all communities. For example, according to the American Community Survey 2006-2008, over 63 percent of the Asian population over the age of 25 in Montgomery County has at least a bachelor’s degree and one in three has an advanced degree, exceeding the already high educational levels of the County’s general population (56 percent with bachelor’s degrees and 29 percent with advanced degrees). Their intellectual capital and entrepreneurial spirit are tremendous assets to our knowledge-based industries, and their emphasis on education has contributed to the reputation of our school districts, which are directly tied to our property values!

We are being perceived as a whole region no matter how we see ourselves. The local jurisdictional lines mean nothing to global partners and talents who are here to study, work, invest, and do business. For long-term economic prosperity, we must be open-minded about regional collaboration across jurisdictions, sectors and industries because we all benefit from a thriving region with many thriving communities clustered within close proximity to one another. A vibrant employment base in a neighboring jurisdiction means greater opportunities for our residents, while an excellent school district in our community benefits not just Maryland but also Virginia and beyond, especially when our kids come back after college to settle in the region.

In fact, Maryland is the 5th state or jurisdiction I have lived in, after Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia and Washington, DC. I didn’t settle in Montgomery County because it’s Montgomery, which I had never heard of before, but because it is next to Washington, DC, an international city where I found a job and a lifestyle, and has an excellent school district and beautiful neighborhoods. You can say the same about people choosing Fairfax County, where every one in five of its residents is now Asian.

The fact that Washington, DC has attracted many empty nesters and adults with no children in recent years while families with school-age children have gravitated toward suburbs shows the interdependent nature of the capital region in the life cycles of many individuals and families. Serious regional collaboration on affordable housing, transit, and workforce development is imperative to ensuring that this region does not become a victim of its own success when people cannot afford to live near where they work and have to be stuck in traffic. We all want to remain a magnet to the young people who favor urban living and the best and the brightest from all around the world who will only add to the prosperity of the region. And if we are to solve these issues, we must learn how to effectively engage the immigrant and ethnic minority communities that are becoming the backbone of our economy, whether knowledge-based or service-based.

Elections and Asian Americans

If you live in Maryland, you probably know that our primary election is on April 3, much earlier than previous years. Chances are, you have received multiple mailings from both your local Board of Elections and from candidates, especially if you live in the new Congressional District 6, where it’s a serious contest in both the primary and general elections.

Local elections can be confusing as relatively few people pay attention to local politics, especially for the largely-immigrant Asian community, which does not have deep local ties to really know the issues or the candidates. In spite of greater efforts by the party establishments and campaigns to reach out to our community and greater overall participation from our community in recent years as voters, donors, volunteers or organizers, or even candidates, a host of challenges remain in our election participation.

In Maryland, most of the elections are decided by the primary race, especially in the heavily minority jurisdictions where Asians congregate, such as Montgomery, Howard, Prince George’s and Baltimore city.

Since many Asian American voters are not registered with any parties, they cannot vote for most of the candidates in the primary election, and by the time they cast their votes in the general election, the results are so predictable that their votes don’t really matter much. The reluctance among Asians to be associated with any
parties means this phenomenon is unlikely to change in the near future – unless we change the policy to allow independents to vote for party candidates.

The small number of active participants in election activities leads to over-taxing of community leaders and connectors, who are being asked by a growing number of organizations and campaigns to open our wallets and rolodexes to support various candidates and party campaigns. It can be exhausting and expensive for a very frugal community that still brings lunch to work to save money and does not always understand why so much money is needed for elections.

It is one thing to reach out for money and votes; quite another for advice and understanding. So far, we have been mostly playing a cheerleading or supporting role. Very rarely do campaigns or parties take the time to learn about our communities’ dynamics, interests and priorities, or to get our advice on critical issues.

So we mostly cast our votes based on name recognition, campaign rhetoric or personal relationship rather than real issues that matter to us. Until the parties and the campaigns learn to engage our communities on a continuous basis and better yet, to cultivate true leadership in the Asian community, we will continue to see what I call the “eagle effect”—organizations or individuals swooping down to seek our support when needed then disappearing into thin air.

Finally, the national debate on illegal immigration has made Latinos synonymous with immigration. Often times, it is assumed that all immigrants support pro-immigrant legislations such as the Dream Act, which would allow those who were brought to this country illegally as children enjoy in-state college tuition if they graduate from Maryland’s high schools.

The fact is, the Asian community is highly divided on this issue as they were in 2009 when Montgomery County started reporting individuals charged with violent crimes to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after a couple of high profile killings committed by undocumented residents.

A community made of largely swing voters is fair game for any party wanting to earn our trust and votes. The fact that most Asians vote for Democrats has more to do with the lack of serious outreach from the Republican Party and the perception that Democrats are more minority-friendly, than with where the parties stand on issues.

With immigrants and our families, including our American-born children, making up an increasingly larger share of almost every community in the region, it is time the political parties integrate multicultural (and multilingual if necessary) outreach into their psyche and strategy for their own long-term benefits. No matter who we support, our core values of family cohesiveness (lowest divorce rate among all racial groups), education (highest educational attainment), and personal responsibility (highest savings rate) don’t change.

The fact that Maryland is the only state in the country with three Indian Americans in its state legislature, in addition to a Chinese American and a Filipino American, is sure progress. True social integration can take generations, but let’s not waste any generation, foreign-or American- born.

The article was originally published in Asian Fortune’s April edition.