Asian immigrants changing US economy, society
HIROYUKI KOTAKE, Nikkei Washington bureau chief
WASHINGTON -- The face of the U.S. is changing fast, and it's looking more and more Asian. As more people from countries in the region, especially China and India, move to the U.S. in search of a better life, communities are changing to meet their needs. And newcomers, in turn, are changing their new home.
One typical example is Amber Wang, a former journalist. The Nikkei Asian Review caught up with her at lunch recently at a Shanghainese restaurant in the central business district of the suburban city of Rockville, Maryland, near Washington. The city is home to a growing Chinatown, with an increasing concentration of supermarkets, mass electronics retailers, beauty salons and other shops.
Born in China, Wang immigrated to the U.S. six years ago with her husband, a scientist. She said it was her husband's decision to move to the U.S., considering his career and the future of their children. "Rockville is very convenient. There are many Chinese stores," she said. The Wangs, who live in Virginia, are now building a house in Rockville, as they have been impressed by the high quality of life there.
Maryland is home to a number of biotechnology and information technology-related companies and institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, one of the world's most advanced medical research centers. The residents there tend to be well-off, and the quality of the schools and houses is high. Asians like Wang are attracted to this environment. Montgomery County, which includes Rockville, has a population of about 1 million, 15% of whom are Asian.
In Maryland, many Asians are starting businesses, thanks to the state's support for minorities. "Maryland is one of the best places to start a business," said Joan Wang, another resident of Chinese descent. She founded iDesign Engineering, an environment-friendly civil engineering and consulting company, in Silver Spring, a town near Rockville. According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a U.S. research institute, one-fourth of technology and engineering companies set up in Maryland from 2006 to 2012 were founded by immigrants. Of these, many were started by people from China or India.
Rockville and Silver Spring are a snapshot of the future of the U.S. population. Roughly 19.4 million Asians now live in the U.S., up about 50% over the past decade. One estimate shows the number might jump by about 150% in 2060 from the current level. The ethnic Asian population is still trailing behind those of other minority groups such as Hispanics and African Americans, but the Asian population growth overwhelms others.
Suburb on the map
A number of Indian shops, including clothing and jewelry stores and restaurants, occupy both sides of Oak Tree Road in Edison, a township in New Jersey about an hour's drive from Manhattan. "People in India know the area. It's on world maps," said Mahesh Shah, vice chairman of the Indian Business Association.
Edison has a population of some 100,000 and people with Indian heritage account for 30% of them. Its good location -- the suburbs of New York -- has attracted many immigrants from India, transforming an area that was once run-down. Now the town is thriving, and is a magnet for Indian residents.
There have been four waves of immigration to the U.S.: 1) Native Americans; 2) immigrants from Western and Northern Europe and slaves from Africa from the 16th century to the 19th century; 3) immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Caribbean in the 19th and 20th centuries; and 4) immigrants from Latin America and Asia after World War II.
The fourth wave has accelerated since 1965. President Lyndon Johnson eased restrictions on the number of immigrants to be accepted from each country, and as a result the number of immigrants from Latin America and Asia, which had been suppressed under stricter limits than those on people from Europe, started rising sharply. Their fertility rates are also generally high, which is helping drive the steady expansion of the U.S. population.
The lead player in the fourth wave is about to shift from Latinos to Asians. In 2013, the U.S. accepted a total of more than 1.2 million immigrants. The top spots were dominated by Asian countries, with 147,000 people from China and 129,000 from India, exceeding the 125,000 from Mexico. Immigrants from South Korea and the Philippines have also kept climbing. The recent trend underscores the fact that Asia, a region with a diverse mix of countries and huge populations, is gaining greater presence in the U.S.
Furthermore, diligent Asians earn high incomes and achieve high education. Statistics in 2013 showed that their median household income was $72,000 and people aged 25 or older who have a bachelor's degree or higher stood at 51%, considerably higher than the U.S. national average of $52,000 and 30%. This is another reason that Asians are increasing their presence in the country.
Patty Chen runs a real estate company in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts. "We not only arrange contracts to buy a house; we support many things, such as kids, fixing up a house and finding shops. They come to us for support." She said she has received requests from Chinese clients looking to buy houses for cash. These customers hope to immigrate to the U.S. for their children's education or to protect their assets, even though they may not be fluent in English.
According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth at the University of Georgia, the purchasing power of Asians in the U.S. totaled $770 billion as of 2014 -- 19th in the world if compared with gross domestic product data -- larger than Saudi Arabia and Switzerland. One estimate by Selig showed that their purchasing power will continue to expand and top $1 trillion in 2019. The increase in the number of Asians, who are relatively young and wealthy, might serve as a tailwind for the U.S. economy, which has been struggling with the aftereffects of the financial crisis and its aging population.
Meanwhile, the higher Asians' economic status becomes, the bigger say they have in the country. In September 2014, about 19,000 people reportedly gathered at Madison Square Garden in New York to show their support for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his first visit to the U.S. since taking office. The Indian group that organized the event claimed it was the largest ever in the U.S. to welcome a foreign leader. MR Rangaswami, an Indian investor who participated in the event, said, "That was a big milestone event that the community can look back on and feel proud." He is also involved in lobbying and takes as an example Jewish-Americans. By learning about their political and charity activities, he tries to boost the recognition of the Indian-American community in the U.S. as well as the national interests of India. Lobbying campaigns by Indian residents were also the driving force behind the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, which took effect in 2008.
"My dad told me as a young kid that Americans can do anything. I believed him then, and I believe it now," said Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana. On June 24, he announced his candidacy for the presidential race in 2016, becoming the first Indian-American to become a major contender. Nikki Haley, the Republican governor of South Carolina and another Indian-American, is also mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate. In the not-too-distant future, an Asian American may become the most powerful person in the U.S.
Nikkei staff writers Tomoko Ashizuka, Michiko Kageyama in New York and Yuichiro Kanematsu in Silicon Valley contributed to this story.