Editor's Note: Sayu Bhojwani is the former Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs for New York City and the founding director of The New American Leaders Project. She is also a PhD candidate in Politics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Born in India, and raised in Belize, Sayu is a naturalized citizen of the United States.
By Sayu Bhojwani, Special to CNN
(CNN) In this election year, the narratives of immigration and immigrants are familiar. At the national level, the Latino and the Asian American vote are scrutinized by pundits and coveted by the presidential candidates. At the state and local level, the role of immigrants’ effect on local economies and contribution to population growth is now commonplace conversation, by immigration opponents and proponents alike. The 2010 Census and a new report, however, shine light on a new phenomenon – the increasing number of immigrants in America’s suburbs, an important confirmation of the visible changes many Americans have been witnessing over the last decade, as our schools, towns and workplaces diversify, and the positive outcomes that such diversity can produce in politics and policy at the local, state, and national levels.
In assessing the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the US, the study identifies four types of suburbs—diverse, predominantly non-white, predominantly white, and exurbs. Among these, racially diverse and integrated suburbs—where 20 to 60 percent of the residents are people of color, and where 53 million Americans live—have experienced a number of positive electoral and policy outcomes and are, as Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce put it, “at the cutting edge of racial, ethnic, and…political change in America.”
These suburbs are reflective of the new America—diverse, dynamic and rich with possibility. The demographics of these communities can lead to greater political participation, cross-ethnic coalition building, and a coordinated policy agenda.
Diverse suburbs are the most likely to have an even number of Democratic and Republican voters and competitive elections. This partisan heterogeneity increases the likelihood that voters will participate, given the importance of their turnout in an election. Research by James Gimpel and others has shown that partisan heterogeneity also increases the likelihood of civic engagement by young people, who feel a greater sense of efficacy and motivation to participate when parties are competing for their votes.
Diverse suburbs can also increase pan-ethnic coalition building. In a new majority America, candidates from immigrant communities are less likely to be competing only for votes from their ethnic groups, and more likely to be representing diverse jurisdictions. In his 2011 book, James Lai asserts that Asian American candidates have used suburbs as “political incubators,” and have had success building pan-ethnic coalitions – a critical skill for minority, and all, candidates that forces them to respect diversity, a core American value.
Finally, at the local level, racially diverse communities can overcome differences to unite around common policy needs in education, healthcare, open space, and other public services. Some have pointed to concerns that a more diverse America will lead to differences in priorities and resultant tensions between older, White Americans and a younger, immigrant population. Thus, the opportunity to organize across racial lines for a common purpose is a new and exciting possibility in our suburbs, and one that also bodes well for the future of our diverse country.
For decades, immigrant communities have been drawn to urban areas, whose economic strength and cultural vitality have benefited as a result. But, suburbs, where the country’s population has grown the most, are now the places to watch, not just for their economic success but also for political activity that shapes, and is shaped by, immigrant communities. To be a community of immigrants is a badge of pride, not just for New York City and Chicago, but also for Aurora, Illinois and the City of Lawrence, Massachusetts. Opening our arms to the opportunities that diversity brings has been a smart economic decision, but it can also be a smart political decision.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sayu Bhojwani