Immigrants who used to flock mainly to urban areas
will build homes, open businesses, and create their own
communities right in the middle of Anytown, USA.
The global in the local
New subdivisions, with their neatly trimmed lawns, Palladian windows, and SUVs, seem to be springing up everywhere around Boston. Driving by, one might assume they reflect just more American dreams being achieved. But a closer look at the mailboxes in one neighborhood reveals a twist. Almost all are labeled "Patel" or "Baghat." Over the past 20 years, these Indian immigrants moved from the villages and small towns of Gujarat State, initially to rental-apartment complexes in the suburbs of northeastern Massachusetts, and now to their own homes. They've opened stores, restaurants, and high-tech companies. They've built temples. They've created organizations that host cultural celebrations for immigrants and native-born alike. Their activities are transforming the face of suburban Boston.
But many of these people are also still hard at work transforming their homelands. While they create communities in New England, they also send money back to India to open businesses and build homes. They belong to the Bharatiya Janata Party and The Indian American Political Forum. And their houses of worship change the religious landscape in Gujarat as well as the one in Massachusetts.
One such family is Dipa Patel and her husband, Pratik. Nearly 10 years ago, Pratik left Bodeli, a town in Gujarat State of approximately 10,000 people, to marry Dipa. He had a bachelor of arts degree in computer science from an Indian university, and he and his cousin owned a computer school franchise. When he moved to America, Pratik found a job on the assembly line of a large telecommunications firm. Rewarded for his hard work, he moved quickly onto the engineering track and rose steadily up the corporate ladder. The company, which packed more than 8,000 cars into its parking lot in its heyday, now employs fewer than a thousand, but Pratik is among them.
Nothing deters Pratik and Dipa from their pursuit of the American dream. As soon as he completed his mandatory five years of residence, Pratik filed for citizenship. He and Dipa now have two young daughters who are more conversant in American songs and folk tales than they are in Indian stories. Pratik takes classes toward his master's degree in the evenings. Dipa works as a quality assurance supervisor at a manufacturing company. Each month, they go to BJs Wholesale Club to purchase more pieces of American middle-class life. Last fall, they finally achieved the piece de resistance their own home in a new subdivision in southern New Hampshire.
But Pratik and Dipa are steadfast in their pursuit of Gujarati dreams, as well. They are now the sole supporters of Pratik's parents, sending more money back each month than his father ever made. Pratik still maintains his partnership in the computer school. And before they bought their home in America, the family first built a second story onto their house in Bodeli, including a separate bedroom suite and Western-style bathroom, which sits empty except during their visits.
Many other immigrants are also making homes in Boston while they remain active in their countries of origin. Over the last five years, while I studied new immigrants communities in Boston, I also met people like Teresa, who travels back to Brazil at least four times a year to manage her rental properties and investments, and Imran, who runs a consulting business that helps Americans do business in Pakistan and helps bring Pakistani clients to the United States. Spanish-, Gaelic-, and Portuguese-speaking athletes and spectators crowd suburban playing fields each weekend. Ethnic grocery stores, money-transfer businesses, travel agencies, and restaurants line the downtown streets of places like Brockton and Attleboro, but they are also tucked away in strip malls in Shrewsbury and Chelmsford. These dynamics transform the local landscape and make it inherently global.
In 2004, there were nearly 1 million immigrants in Massachusetts (14 percent of the population). About half came from Latin America and the Caribbean, 23 percent came from Asia, and the rest emigrated from Europe and Africa. We rely heavily on immigrant labor: A recent report by MassINC and the Center for Labor Market Studies found that, in 2004, immigrants made up 17 percent of the labor force. Without them, our labor pool would be shrinking. Some immigrants arrive with lots of education and sophisticated English skills while others arrive with neither. They are doctors, bankers, and high-tech entrepreneurs as well as housecleaners, gardeners, carpenters, and restaurant workers.
What attracts these newcomers to the suburbs? Highly educated professionals probably move to places like Lexington, Acton, and Boxborough for the housing and schools. Other immigrants, following in the footsteps of Irish and Italian mill workers, are attracted to the affordable housing and plentiful retail space in places like Framingham. Still others, once established, leave the old mill towns for smaller communities nearby.
When immigrants move to the suburbs, their stores, religious communities, and political groups are not far behind, responding to the daily needs of their customers and their demand for connection to their homelands. Evidence of increasing religious diversity also abounds: Signs at local churches include a line in Korean or Chinese, storefront churches are tucked in between the coffee shops and fast-food stores, and Hindu and Muslim communities that once met in old churches or industrial parks are now building their own houses of worship.
Creating a successful diverse community isn't easy, and how public institutions should respond to their constituents, how to manage the use of public space and allocate resources, and how to determine the appropriate role of religion in public life must be worked out. How immigrants fulfill their rights and responsibilities is as much a function of what they do as it is how they are received in the countries where they now live.
But heightened diversity also brings with it many opportunities. People who are bilingual and bicultural have the capacity to transmit as well as translate, serving as intermediaries between parties who desperately need to understand each other. The same people that mobilize around political causes in their homelands often double as catalysts for change in the United States: the Gujarati business owners who act as go-betweens for potential business partners in the US and India, the Brazilians at the forefront of efforts to mobilize their countrymen in Framingham, the South Asians who are helping to create and recreate Islam and Hinduism in this country and in India and Pakistan.
Certainly, there are challenges to face.
Maynard town officials spoke not so much about how immigration affected the public schools, where they estimate that Spanish and Portuguese speakers make up 4 to 5 percent of the population, but about the increasing demand for English classes for adults. The educators do more than just teach the language they also help their students get driver's licenses, open bank accounts, and gain access to medical care.
There are benefits, too. As more well-educated, foreign-born professionals move to New England, the need will also grow for construction workers to build their houses, and for housekeepers and gardeners to maintain those houses and for restaurant workers to feed the people who live in those houses. Over the next 10 years, the ethnic businesses and religious communities that are hidden inside suburban shopping centers are likely to become more visible.
At the same time, immigrants' ties to their homelands will also probably remain strong. Many countries offer tax breaks and investment opportunities for expatriates, and more than 90 countries have policies encouraging dual citizenship or citizenship without residence, in part because some of them have become dependent on the financial and political contributions of citizens who have immigrated elsewhere. Remittances from workers in the United States to Mexico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Guatemala, for example, total some $8 billion annually. Issues like poverty, education, and religious life will no longer be separate issues in the next 10 years, not only will immigrants be more noticeable in the suburbs, the fortunes of our small local communities and their homelands will be inextricably linked.
Peggy Levitt is chairwoman and associate professor of the sociology department at Wellesley College and a research fellow at the Weather- head Center for International Affairs and the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University. Her new book, God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape, will be published by The New Press in June. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.