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.