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Peter Schrag: In the new California, we're all immigrants

By Peter Schrag -- Bee Columnist Published 2:15 a.m. PST Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The tryptophan haze that accompanies our annual celebration of the survival of the nation's earliest generation of undocumented aliens may not be the best environment in which to consider the issues raised by latter-day immigration.

But given the ongoing sound and fury about marginal things such as driver's licenses for illegal aliens, it may not be the worst time either. Most of California's problems -- the problems that we just elected an immigrant governor to solve -- touch on immigration and ethnicity. What better time to talk turkey.

As Californians, we're all living in a brand new state, one in which there is no ethnic majority and where those of us who are, in the language of the census, "non-Hispanic whites " soon no longer will be even the largest minority. Whether our great-great-grandparents came by wagon across the Plains, or our parents came by plane from India or by who knows what route from Mexico, we're in some measure all immigrants to this new, ever-changing place.

In her recent book, "Where I Came From," Joan Didion, Sacramento's native daughter, deflates the myths she grew up with, particularly each generation's belief that it was the possessor of special rights -- as the children of pioneers or whatever -- and that every succeeding generation, Chinese, Okies, Mexicans, was the despoiler of the pristine condition found (or created) by its predecessors.

It's an old American confusion. If we began in perfection, how could there be progress? That's not a rhetorical question: As Americans, we always will be haunted by it. And as Californians born, as some believe, in original perfection, we seem through our passion for direct democracy to be constantly engaged in trying to restore what we imagine that perfection to have been.

Because our brand new state has grown up around us, we're not quite sure what it is or what we want it to be. One-fourth of us are immigrants; one-fourth of our schoolchildren speak some language other than English at home. How much are we willing to spend to provide them with the quality schools and colleges, and with the generous access, that once made California the model of the world? At the same time, to what extent and how must we restrict that immigration to make it possible -- economically, politically, even morally -- to accommodate and assimilate our new residents? This is a debate that's often dominated by extremes and bereft of moderation. Neither side seems very helpful on the balance between our demand for cheap labor, fairness and immigrants' rights, and the need to maintain some sort of control of our borders.

By now, we ought to know more than enough to understand that policy demands nuance and compromise. A new study from the Pacific Council on International Policy, an affiliate of the Council on Foreign Relations, finds, in the words of its author, Georges Vernez, that "international migration is transforming Southern California \[where the lion's share of California's Latinos are concentrated\] into the world's first global civil society." But as Vernez points out, that grand phrase covers a lot of things, positive and negative.

Our diasporas of immigrants, he said, have served Southern California well, "with immigrants' work ethic, entrepreneurship and lower labor costs providing the region's employers with a competitive advantage."

But Vernez also warns that the disproportionate number of undereducated immigrants is opening increasing income gaps and stressing the social fabric. Thus while the second and third generations are assimilating, buying homes, starting businesses and becoming an increasing force in the voting booth, poor Hispanics are losing economically relative to non-Hispanic whites.

Because their children are now "a majority of the children entering the region's school system, if not reversed, these trends will threaten the social stability and economic health of the region," he said.

Those conclusions reinforce a recent study by Laura Hill and Joseph Hayes of the Public Policy Institute of California showing the huge education gaps between new immigrants from Latin America and those from Asia.

Vernez's remedies are as tough to achieve as they are simple to state: increased investment in education, especially at the college level; federal immigration policy changes to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants; and furtherance of a civic culture based on tolerance and common values.

What seems increasingly certain is that, for good reasons or bad, Californians' willingness to support schools, colleges and other major public services depends on three interacting sets of variables: One is the state of the economy. The second is the extent to which voters and taxpayers feel that those services aren't swamped by waves of immigrants so large that their needs can never be adequately met. The third is the extent to which the users of those services and the citizens who pay and vote for them are -- and are perceived to be -- members of the same community. The sooner we understand that we are all immigrants to it, the faster we'll get there.