New Suburban Dream Born of Asia and Southern California

April 29, 2013

By: Jennifer Medina
Via: The New York Times
SAN MARINO, Calif. — Beneath the palm trees that line Huntington Drive, named for the railroad magnate who founded this Southern California city, hang signs to honor families who have helped sponsor the centennial celebration here this year. There are names like Dryden, Crowley and Telleen, families that have lived here for generations. But there are newer names as well: Sun, Koo and Shi.

A generation ago, whites made up roughly two-thirds of the population in this rarefied Los Angeles suburb, where most of the homes are worth well over $1 million. But Asians now make up over half of the population in San Marino, which has long attracted some of the region’s wealthiest families and was once home to the John Birch Society’s Western headquarters.

The transformation illustrates a drastic shift in California immigration trends over the last decade, one that can easily be seen all over the area: more than twice as many immigrants to the nation’s most populous state now come from Asia than from Latin America.

And the change here is just one example of the ways immigration is remaking America, with the political, economic and cultural ramifications playing out in a variety of ways. The number of Latinos has more than doubled in many Southern states, including Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, creating new tensions. Asian populations are booming in New Jersey, and Latino immigrants are reviving small towns in the Midwest.

Much of the current immigration debate in Congress has focused on Hispanics, and California has for decades been viewed as the focal point of that migration. But in cities in the San Gabriel Valley — as well as in Orange County and in Silicon Valley in Northern California — Asian immigrants have become a dominant cultural force in places that were once largely white or Hispanic.

“We are really looking at a different era here,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California who has studied census data. “There are astounding changes in working-class towns and old, established, wealthy cities. It is not confined to one place.”

Asians have become a majority in more than half a dozen cities in the San Gabriel Valley in the last decade, creating a region of Asian-dominated suburbs that stretches for nearly 30 miles east of Los Angeles. In the shopping centers, Chinese-language characters are on nearly every storefront, visible from the freeways that cut through the area.

Monterey Park, a middle-class city that began attracting Asian immigrants more than a generation ago, is still widely seen as the area’s center and retail hub. But as Asians have continued to arrive in Southern California, they have moved into some of the most exclusive cities in Los Angeles County, making up more than 60 percent of the population in San Gabriel and Walnut, along the county’s eastern edge.

Many of the immigrants come here from China and Taiwan, where they were part of a highly educated and affluent population. They have eagerly bought property in places like San Marino, where the median income is nearly double that of Beverly Hills and is home to one of the highest-performing school districts in the state. The local library now offers story time in Mandarin.

But the wealth is not uniform, and there are pockets of poverty in several of the area’s working-class suburbs, particularly in Vietnamese and Filipino communities.

“This is kind of ground zero for a new immigrant America,” said Daniel Ichinose, a demographer at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. “You have people speaking Mandarin and Vietnamese and Spanish all living together and facing many common challenges.”

The children of the immigrants who began transforming the area a generation ago are beginning to come of age, becoming cheerleaders for the region, running for political office and creating businesses that cater to a distinctly American-born audience.

There are countless stores that display signs in Mandarin, sell restaurant supplies and Chinese herbs, or advertise acupuncture or brokerage services. But perhaps the most common storefront is the boba tea shop, where young patrons spend hours drinking cold milk tea with jellylike tapioca balls. Nearly every one of the region’s hundreds of strip malls boasts a cafe — or even two — offering a dizzying number of variations on the sweet drink.

Andrew and David Fung, who grew up in Seattle, were surprised to see the pervasiveness of Chinese and Taiwanese culture in the San Gabriel Valley.

After moving to the area a couple of years ago to try to break into the entertainment industry, the Fung brothers created several hip-hop videos celebrating what they termed the “boba life,” to embrace the area where, as their lyrics explain, “kids drink more milk tea than liquor.” The videos became so wildly popular on the Internet that local leaders began showing them in official meetings.

“People here think it’s normal, hanging out to drink boba all day long, but this culture doesn’t exist everywhere, and we’re trying to tell them to embrace it, to own it,” said David Fung, 26. “We’ve got to teach ourselves to be proud of who we are and tell others about it.”

The Fung brothers have helped create a local ethnic pride that would have been unimaginable a generation ago, said Oliver Wang, a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach, who grew up in San Marino in the 1980s and returned to the area three years ago. The area could become central to Asian-American identity in the region in the way East Los Angeles is to Latinos or South Los Angeles is to African-Americans, he said.

“It wasn’t cool to be Chinese or cool to be Asian,” he said. “The idea that the San Gabriel Valley could be the locus of some kind of cultural movement or identity is fascinating. They are asserting cultural capital to create Asian-American identity that wasn’t there before, and one that is homegrown, not imported from Taiwan or Hong Kong.”

But the growth has not come without some backlash. While there is rarely overt tension in the area these days, there is a history of clashes over English-only ordinances, and some people still speak in hushed tones about Chinese immigrants taking over the region.

More recently, there have been renewed complaints of “maternity tourism,” a cottage industry that brings Chinese women here to give birth so their children can have American citizenship. Residents, including immigrants, have complained to officials about large houses that host dozens of pregnant women at a time.

Jay Chen, 35, a member of the Hacienda Heights school board in the San Gabriel Valley, recalled a 2010 controversy over a plan to create a Chinese-language class at a local middle school. Last year, when Mr. Chen challenged a longtime Republican congressman, Ed Royce, to represent a newly drawn district, he received a handful of messages using anti-Asian slurs.

“There’s still this conservative element that said teaching Chinese meant you were teaching communism,” said Mr. Chen, who lost the race. “Meanwhile, people are fighting to get into our district so their children — of whatever ethnicity — can take these classes.”

Food often draws outsiders to the region, which is packed with mom-and-pop restaurants where a feast can cost less than $20.

Last summer, Jonny Hwang, 32, a son of Taiwanese immigrants, created the 626 Night Market. (Its name is play on the region’s area code.) At the first event, with dozens of local food vendors, more than 15,000 people clogged the streets to get in. “It surprised everyone,” Mr. Hwang said. “All of the sudden we had a community and something that even other people wanted.”

Exploring World Migration

March 26, 2013

Via: peoplemovin

Peoplemovin is a sleek interactive data visualization that allows you to explore the flow of migrants around the world.

Lure of Green Cards Brings Big Investments for Remote Resort in Vermont

January 2, 2013

By: Katharine Q. Seelye
Via: The New York Times

Jay Peak Resort
JAY, Vt. — At this remote outpost by the Canadian border, Bill Stenger is overseeing what he says is the biggest economic development project that Vermont has ever seen.

He is expanding the Jay Peak ski resort, which he co-owns, but he is also building a biomedical research firm and a window manufacturing plant, extending the runway at the local airport and rehabilitating much of the nearby town of Newport, where he lives. There, he is developing the waterfront, adding the town’s first hotel and a conference center and rebuilding an entire downtown block. He is also creating what he says is the largest indoor mountain bike park in the world and a state-of-the art tennis center.

The price tag for the entire project, which Mr. Stenger says will create 10,000 direct and indirect jobs over several years, is $865 million.

But even more unusual than the size of the undertaking is the method by which Mr. Stenger and his business partner, Ariel Quiros, are financing it. They have tapped into a federal program that gives green cards, or permanent residency, to foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in an American business — the reward for the investment is a chance at United States citizenship.

Mr. Stenger has already attracted 550 foreign investors from 60 countries to put up $275 million for the first phase: a hotel at the Jay Peak ski complex, an indoor water park the size of a football field, an ice hockey arena, condominiums, restaurants and stores.

The second and third phases, now under way, require 1,000 additional foreign investors to put up $500 million to overhaul Newport and to develop the nearby Burke Mountain ski area.

Mr. Stenger and Mr. Quiros are putting up $90 million themselves. But even at $785 million, this is one of the single biggest projects in the country financed under the investor program.

Congress created the visa program in 1990 to help stimulate the economy. Because of a cumbersome process and complaints of fraud and corruption, it was long underused.

But a confluence of events in recent years has led to its rather sudden revival: the program was improved; the financial crisis of 2008 made it hard for developers to get loans from commercial banks; and foreign nationals, especially in China, were accumulating vast wealth and were eager for their children to study and live in the United States.

In 2006, the government issued just 802 of these EB-5 visas to investors and their families; this year, it granted 7,818.

The program is now growing so rapidly that in the next year or two the number issued will probably reach the annual limit of 10,000. For the first time in the program’s history, applicants may be turned away.

Mr. Stenger, 64, who began his career as a ski instructor, and Mr. Quiros, 56, who spent years in the import-export business and already owned thousands of acres here, began leveraging the visa program five years ago, in the early stages of its revival. Along with state officials, who monitor and audit their projects, and Senator Patrick J. Leahy, a Democrat who has championed the program in Washington, the two men have sought to make Jay Peak a national showcase for the investor program.

Mr. Quiros said these projects would have been impossible without it.

“It’s too hard to get money of this magnitude,” he said, “especially with the economic situation that exists today.”

The immigrant investors do not have to get involved in the business, though it must create or save at least 10 jobs, and they can live anywhere they want.

One potential investor in Jay Peak is Steve Green, 49, an Englishman who has had a successful career in banking and reinsurance and has lived in Bermuda for 25 years.

“The reason to explore this and potentially to do it — and I’m more than 50-50 inclined to do it — is that it would give me an opportunity to relocate in the United States, keep a small home in Bermuda, spend the majority of my retirement in the United States and confer those rights on my children,” he said in a telephone interview from Bermuda.

Mr. Green said his hesitation about investing here stemmed from uncertainty over what kind of financial return he would get. “There is a substantial risk that you don’t get anything back,” he said.

Investors must put up $1 million for a visa, but if they invest in a rural area or one with high unemployment, that is reduced to $500,000.

This corner of Vermont, called the Northeast Kingdom, is certainly rural. The construction going on here would make a splash anywhere, but in this stretch of mountains and dairy farms, the scope of Mr. Stenger’s vision is so vast that many residents say they are still trying to comprehend it.

The 10,000 anticipated jobs are twice the population of Newport; the $500,000 from one investor is equal to the town’s annual budget.

“It’s hard for us to wrap our head around what $200 million is going to mean,” said Patricia Sears, the executive director of the Newport City Renaissance Corporation, a nonprofit group that promotes development. “Even $5 million is a lot of millions to us.”

The town is trying to prepare for the coming transformation. State and local officials are planning ways to train and educate residents for the anticipated jobs — Mr. Stenger said 75 percent of the work force would be Vermonters. And the town has adopted a zoning code that it hopes will keep Newport’s small-town character.

But the sweeping overhaul has created concerns. Some worry that Newport will become gentrified and too expensive, especially for older residents. They expect traffic jams. And some say that however beneficial the project may be in creating short-term jobs, it will never attract enough business to sustain itself because the region is so remote.

“There’s a level of nervousness — watching Bill spend money is like watching my grandson spend Monopoly money,” said Chris Braithwaite, the publisher of the local newspaper, The Barton Chronicle. “But Bill has been here a long time and has a real commitment to this community.”

Some residents are already being confronted with new realities. At the Family Recipe, a small restaurant on Main Street, Carol Bonneau, 50, the owner, said she felt as if the rug was pulled out from under her when she learned that her business — and the entire block on which it sits — would be razed. She said she was losing her investment and had no idea where she would go.

Mr. Stenger said he planned to talk with everyone who would be dislocated and help them find new opportunities. As for how to make his projects sustainable, he said they would draw visitors, including thousands of Canadians from just over the border, by their quality.

“We need striking and unique facilities to move people,” he said at a recent gathering of government officials and educators who are planning for the new growth. The water park at Jay Peak, with its retractable roof, is an example of his approach; it provides “weatherproof” recreation at a ski resort that cannot always guarantee enough snow, and it has helped turn Jay Peak into a year-round destination.

Mr. Stenger dismissed criticism that the visa program simply allowed rich people to jump ahead of others in line for citizenship.

“Yes, it’s true that the investment is getting them their green card,” Mr. Stenger said. “But to say they’re buying their way into the country — well, they’re investing in products and programs that are having a tremendously positive impact on the community.”

Heartland H-1Bs: Foreign Tech Workers Beyond Silicon Valley

August 5, 2012

By: Marcus Wohlsen

10 highest-demand metro areas for skilled worker visas
The debate over foreign skilled workers in the United States divides along painfully predictable fault lines. On one side, tech CEOs complain that the country’s flawed education system can’t produce the talent they need to stay competitive. On the other side, labor and anti-immigration groups charge that companies just want to import cheaper labor from China and India at the expense of qualified U.S. workers.

In a new study, Brookings Institution researchers have drilled down into the numbers and found that the data doesn’t neatly support either side. Despite the interconnectedness of the global economy, the economics of bringing skilled foreign workers to the United States remains very much local.

Companies that want to bring in college-educated foreign workers must apply for what are known as H-1B visas. The Brookings study appears to be one of the first that looks at H-1B applications at not just the national but the metro level.

“People just look at a national snapshot and say we have a shortage or people are taking away jobs from Americans,” says study co-author Neil Ruiz. He says that from such a distance, the real picture gets distorted: “The data is showing it’s not just a national debate. We need to understand at a local level that this is where economic activity happens. The skills have to happen at the local level.”

In one example, the study describes the employment picture in Columbus, Indiana, about 45 miles south of Indianapolis. Columbus ranks second only to Silicon Valley in intensity of demand for skilled foreign workers, measured by the number of H-1B requests per 1,000 jobs in the metro region. Columbus is home to Cummins Inc., a Fortune 500 diesel engine maker, which accounts for nearly 90 percent of the region’s H-1B applications.

In Columbus, the overall unemployment rate stands at 6 percent, well below the national average. The unemployment rate for workers with bachelor’s degrees comes in even lower at 3 percent — a number that suggests diesel engineers with U.S. citizenship don’t have trouble finding work in Columbus.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in Silicon Valley, a global hub of job creation, hovers at 8.4 percent, slightly higher than the overall U.S. rate. Employers in the region requested an average of nearly 15,000 H-1B visas annually over the past two years, or more than 17 for every thousand workers — by far the country’s highest rate, according to Brookings.

Whether that means Silicon Valley businesses are hiring software engineers from overseas at the expense of their U.S. counterparts remains an open question, since the Brookings study only looked at worker demand and not supply. Top-tier companies like Facebook and Google, which ranks 19th among U.S. employers requesting H-1Bs, scout furiously for so-called 10x engineers, a category that likely excludes many of the Valley’s unemployed coders. Even so, the city of San Jose’s economic development agency recently reported that some 1,800 unemployed engineers had registered with a city program in search of work.

Either way, Brookings’ findings draw a map of U.S. innovation that extends well beyond the usual enclaves. Some high-demand H-1B cities shown on the map above seem like obvious magnets for talent, and others not so much. Ruiz believes the complexity of the situation on the ground reflects one clear truth: If Congress really wants to aid the U.S. economy, it should set immigration policy based on data, not politics. The starting point, he says, is to set the cap on the number of H-1B visas each year by analyzing and meeting the needs of regional economies that depend on innovative companies to stay vibrant.

“Washington is broken –– they always use ideology and get nowhere,” he says. “Facts at the local level can be used to create real, informed policies removed from politics so we can actually grow as a nation.”

Homeless Rural Vets Find A Place To Call Home

July 16, 2012

By: Lucy Nalpathanchil
Via: NPR (All Things Considered)
American Legion Post Commander and Father
This month, more than a dozen homeless veterans will finally have a place to call their own, thanks to the American Legion.

The organization’s post in a small Connecticut town has been working for a decade on a unique project to create not transitional but permanent supportive housing in their rural community.

Jeff MacDonald QuoteFor 55-year-old Army veteran Jeff MacDonald, the new facility in Jewett City, Conn., was like “winning the lottery.”

“Never did I have a house or my own place or nothing,” MacDonald says while walking through his new apartment. “That’s why I’m always outside.”

MacDonald is one of 15 homeless veterans who will live in the renovated American Legion Post. When he got the news, MacDonald says he cried. He has spent the past 22 years drifting from place to place, and battling alcoholism along the way. Now, he’s awestruck by the idea that he’ll have his own home.

Jewett City is in southeastern Connecticut, a rural town that lost its major textile industry when the mills closed after World War II. It’s a quiet community with a Main Street that’s quintessential New England. Everything you need is a short walk away.

A popular destination is Arremony’s Bakery, just a few feet away from the American Legion Post. It was there that Navy veteran William Czmyr first hatched his idea to help homeless veterans by creating apartments for them.

“There are veterans out there that are having it kind of rough; trying to get things back together,” Czmyr says. “They come out of the military, and somewhere along the line they made the wrong turn.”

The Legion post in Jewett City had an abundance of space, so Czmyr organized a committee 10 years ago to work on raising money to renovate the building. From the very beginning, the idea was to provide permanent supportive housing where veterans could stay as long as it took for them to become independent.

The location piqued the interest of the Department of Veterans Affairs immediately.

“Homelessness is a problem in rural areas in southeast Connecticut as in many rural areas in America,” says Laurie Harkness, director of the VA’s Errera Center in Connecticut.

The VA is in the third year of an initiative to end homelessness, but the biggest challenge remains in rural communities where the VA has had a hard time connecting with veterans. For example, it could take a veteran in Jewett City more than an hour to get to one of Connecticut’s two VA hospitals.

Post Cmdr. Mark Czmyr, William Czmyr’s son, says this is why the Legion wanted to provide housing to veterans living in the eastern part of the state.

“If they were homeless and looking for a place to live, they may have to go to New Haven or Hartford [and] be displaced from an area that they know,” Mark Czmyr says.

Federal VA housing vouchers known as HUD-VASH will pay the rent for each veteran. Caseworkers and medical staff from the VA will also come to the men and women living in the building.

In late June, the town of Jewett City turned out to officially open the $6 million renovated apartment building and American Legion Post.

Harkness says Jewett City could be a model for other communities. She says ideas like this come up all the time, but this rural town has something not found in very many places.

“This is the first project that I’ve ever been involved in where there was no ‘not in my backyard,’ ” Harkness says. “Everybody supported it.”

The uniqueness of this project garnered $200,000 in federal government funds. The American Legion also received sizable grants from the state of Connecticut, as well as private donations.

Small Farmers Creating a New Business Model as Agriculture Goes Local

July 2, 2012

By: Kirk Johnson
Via: The New York Times

Bunches of Locally Grown Radishes
SEATTLE — The cultivated rusticity of a farmers’ market, where dirt-dusted beets are status symbols and earnest entrepreneurs preside over chunks of cheese, is a part of weekend life in cities across the nation as the high days of the summer harvest approach.

But beyond the familiar mantras about nutrition or reduced fossil fuel use, the movement toward local food is creating a vibrant new economic laboratory for American agriculture. The result, with its growing army of small-scale local farmers, is as much about dollars as dinner: a reworking of old models about how food gets sold and farms get financed, and who gets dirt under their fingernails doing the work.

“The future is local,” said Narendra Varma, 43, a former manager at Microsoft who invested $2 million of his own money last year in a 58-acre project of small plots and new-farmer training near Portland, Ore. The first four farmers arrived this spring alongside Mr. Varma and his family, aiming to create an economy of scale — tiny players banded in collective organic clout. He had to interrupt a telephone interview to move some goats.

Economists and agriculture experts say the “slow money” movement that inspired Mr. Varma, a way of channeling money into small-scale and organic food operations, along with the aging of the farmer population and steep barriers for young farmers who cannot afford the land for traditional rural agriculture, are only part of the new mix.

A looming shortage of migrant workers, with fewer Mexicans coming north in recent years, could create a kind of rural-urban divide if it continues, with mass-production farms that depend on cheap labor losing some of their price advantages over locally grown food, which tends to be more expensive. From the vineyards of California to the cherry orchards of Oregon, big agriculture has struggled this year to find willing hands. Local farm sales are becoming more stable, predictable and measurable. A study last fall by the Department of Agriculture said that local revenues had been radically undercounted in previous analyses that mainly focused on road stands and markets. When sales to restaurants and stores were factored in, the study said, the local food industry was four times bigger than in any previous count, upward of $4.8 billion.

More predictable revenue streams, especially at a time when so many investments feel risky, are creating a firmer economic argument for local farming that, in years past, was more of a political or lifestyle choice.

“How you make it pay is to get closer to the customer,” said Michael Duffy, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, capsuling the advice he gives to new farmers in the Midwest.

Labor, as it has been for generations in the United States, is still the big wrinkle for local growers. But in many cases, experts like Professor Duffy say, the local food system is increasingly going its own way, differentiated from the traditional labor pool of migrant workers that the United States’ mainstream produce system depends on. Many larger local farms hire Hispanic workers, but at more farm stands and markets, buying local also means, in subtle or not so subtle ways, buying native.

“A byproduct of local food is that local hands are more likely to be producing, harvesting, packing and marketing it, especially for new farmers on small-scale farms,” said Dawn Thilmany McFadden, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University who is part of a leadership team for a training program for beginning farmers.

In other instances, Hispanics who had worked as low-wage laborers are now becoming entrepreneurs. A three-year-old nonprofit group north of Seattle, Viva Farms, specifically aims to help Hispanic farmers get started, with assistance in language training and in understanding the vagaries of the marketplace.

“We work harder now,” said Misael Morales, 35, describing the main difference between life as a farm laborer and as an entrepreneur.

Mr. Morales came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, as a teenager, and last year he and his brother, Salvador, 32, began farming a one-acre plot at Viva Farms. They mainly grow lettuce for markets and restaurants in Seattle.

“Early or late, when something has to get done, you do it,” he said.

Viva Farms’ director of business and organizational development, Ethan Schaffer, said former wage workers like the Morales brothers are often surprised when they realize the prices and profit margins that local organic produce can fetch — something, he said, that rarely penetrates down to the daily life of a migrant picker.

“They get the ag part, and once they realize how the market works, they’re off and running,” Mr. Schaffer said.

Other new farmers, like Christopher Brown, 26, a former Marine infantryman who worked his first day last month at Grow Washington, an organic farm north of Seattle, have more complex motives. Taking a break from the carrot-cleaning table, he says he dreams of building an organization to help bring other veterans into local farming.

Other urban-focused farms, including one in Oregon City, Ore., called C’est Naturelle, are offering, starting this month, one-stop shopping services: community-supported agriculture subscriptions to supply a family a full diet of food from one place, from eggs and butter to beef and greens.

Mr. Varma’s project near Portland, called Community by Design, was inspired, he said, by the Slow Money movement, which has emerged in recent years as a vehicle for financing local, organic food production through groups like Slow Money, a nonprofit group in Boulder, Colo., that connects investors, entrepreneurs and farmers. Of $18 million raised in the last two years by Slow Money, $4 million — the biggest chunk — landed here in the Pacific Northwest, said Woody Tasch, the group’s chairman.

But the economic path for local food is still in many ways difficult.

The federal farm bill, passed by the Senate last month, has provisions to support farmers’ markets. But in Washington State, a program aimed at helping growers build direct marketing relationships with grocers or restaurants died last year in a round of budget cuts.

For Jenny and Alex Smith, both 25, a couple since they met in college — now first-year farmers on a tiny plot about an hour north of Seattle — the economic equation comes down to lowering costs and needs.

They live in a recreational vehicle with no television or Internet service, and they hope to break even this year, earning perhaps $1,600 a month through farmers’ markets and subscriptions for weekly produce packages, so far mostly from friends and family. But they say a farming life still feels, to them, full of promise. They had boring office jobs in Seattle, they said, and now they have a farm dog named Banjo.