Coming to America: Scholar Studies Immigration Trends

Spotlight on Fellow Michael Jones-Correa

Apr 07, 2004

Michael Jones-Correa can see the United States through immigrant eyes, having only really settled in the States as a teenager himself. He has long been interested in issues of citizenship and membership, particularly how immigrants are incorporated into the political process.

Jones-Correa, a current Wilson Center fellow and an associate professor at Cornell University, currently is studying the phenomenon of immigrant suburbanization. Rather than first settling in urban centers, as was the case during the last immigration wave from 1870-1920, today, many immigrants are heading straight to the suburbs, which they perceive as safer, having better schools, and replete with job opportunities. These immigrants are reshaping politics at both a local and national scale.

"Given that more than half of all votes cast in U.S. elections come from voters living in suburbs, understanding changes in suburbia is crucial to any understanding of American politics," he said.

About 75 percent of all recent immigrants—a large majority of them from Latin America and Asia—are concentrated in eight U.S. states. About 30 percent of them reside in just two metropolitan areas: Los Angeles and New York. Half of the immigrant population in metropolitan areas lives in "melting-pot metros": diverse and multicultural areas with no majority ethnic group. Washington DC is one such area.

"There is a fair amount of clustering in the DC metro area" Jones-Correa said, "but unlike in Los Angeles, immigrants are more dispersed here. There is no DC zip code with a majority of any one national group."

In Washington, Jones-Correa said, immigrants find ways to intermingle despite the lack of geographic proximity. Many, such as Korean immigrants, come together at religious institutions to meet others in their ethnic group. Others form alternative bridging institutions. Chinese immigrants in the Washington area, for example, generally converge at one of 30 Chinese language schools in the area.
In researching Korean, Chinese, Iranian, and Latino communities in the Washington metro area, Jones-Correa has found all of these groups to be politically active, even those without U.S. citizenship who cannot yet vote. "None of these groups are powerful yet in the electoral process but all are engaged in their own way," he said.

The Koreans, he said, influence the political process behind the scenes through campaign contributions. The Chinese, however, have more inside access. Often having been in the United States for longer than their Korean counterparts, Chinese immigrants are more likely get appointed to positions in local government. However, members of the Latin American community, lacking either financial resources or inside access, are larger in number and often choose to mobilize through direct action, particularly by attending and speaking at hearings.

Jones-Correa's project also focuses on how suburbia is adjusting to the growing presence of immigrants. He has spent months interviewing local officials who oversee schools, zoning, and services, and then gauging how they have responded to the demands placed on local government due to the increasing demographic diversity in their jurisdictions. Jones-Correa expects the patterns of local responses to immigration he sees playing out in the DC metro area to illuminate broader changes taking place in American politics and society.

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