The contention that California is the nation’s bellwether is so common that you want to argue with it–and of late many have, contending that the state is now too Democratic, too liberal socially, too rabidly environmentalist to be a national trend setter. But in its demographic patterns, on immigration and related issues, California’s experience in the past fifteen years has run a course that eerily foreshadows today’s bitter national immigration debate. In particular, the way California, with its unprecedented ethnic diversity, now manages its social and economic challenges, and the way immigrants assimilate, is almost certain to be a crucial test for the nation and, very likely, for the rest of the world.
Demographically, what California was a generation ago, America is now; what California is, America is likely to become. The Golden State, for all its reputed liberalism and its rapid Hispanicization, may not be so different from the rest of the nation, just a generation or two ahead of it. And the score so far is not nearly as dismal as the nation’s rabid immigration opponents think it is. It may even be surprising.
The most obvious element in the story is demographic. As recently as 1960, 80 percent of Californians were Anglo whites; in that year, the most common native language of California immigrants, the largest number of whom came from Britain or Canada, was English. Just forty years later, California, the world’s seventh- or eighth-largest economy, became America’s first large minority-majority state. Currently, according to the state’s demographers, roughly 41 percent of California’s 37 million residents are Anglos (what the census calls non-Hispanic whites), 37 percent are Latinos, 12 percent are Asians and 6 percent are African-Americans. About 27 percent of California residents are immigrants, the vast majority of them from Latin America or Asia. One-fourth of its schoolchildren come from a home where students are studying English as a foreign language. In another generation Latinos will be an absolute majority, and there will be 2 million fewer non-Hispanic whites than there are now.
That picture isn’t all that different from what the nation will be. By 2050, according to Census projections, the US population will look very much like California’s in the late 1990s. It will be barely half Anglo. Hispanics, now already the largest minority in the country, will constitute 24 percent, blacks 15 percent and Asians 8 percent. Today Texas is already a minority-majority state, and others will soon follow.
The ethnic numbers are hardly certain, especially since the sharply increasing rate of intermarriage among Anglos, Hispanics and Asians (themselves overgeneralized statistical conglomerates) fuzzes up all future ethnic distinctions. Those uncertainties are already apparent in a browning California, where it’s increasingly hard to tell who’s what, either from names or complexion or cultural proclivities. The children now born in California, says essayist Richard Rodriguez, don’t look like–or talk like–their grandparents. What’s certain is that as the country’s baby boomers retire, the nation, like California, will be increasingly dependent on today’s immigrants and their children for its labor force, a labor force that will have to support almost twice as many retirees per worker as it does today.
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Given California’s–and America’s–historic ambivalence about immigrants, it’s hardly surprising that a demographic change of the magnitude that California has experienced since 1960 would generate backlash. It was indirect at first, with the severe tax limitations of Proposition 13 in 1978 and a string of other tax and spending limits (all those illegal immigrants, said Howard Jarvis, the chief sponsor of Prop 13, “just come here to get on the taxpayers’ gravy train”) then with Proposition 187 in 1994, an initiative that sought to deny all undocumented residents access to public schools and the few other public services they were still eligible for. The measure also ordered physicians, nurses, teachers and other public officials to report any undocumented person who sought services to California law-enforcement authorities or federal immigration officers.
Most provisions of Prop 187 were quickly blocked, and eventually overturned, by the federal courts. But the initiative, foreshadowing scores of current federal, state and local attempts to deny services and driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, to shut them out of rental housing and round them up, nonetheless continues to have major political reverberations. Even before it passed, thousands of legal Latino residents, many of them beneficiaries of the amnesty enacted by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, had begun to apply for US citizenship. And since Prop 187 was loudly backed by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, then running for re-election–his TV ads showed shadowy figures running across a freeway to the refrain “They keep coming”–most registered as Democrats the moment they got it.
The year 1994, when Prop 187 passed (by 59 to 41 percent), is a telling baseline. California now–the emerging California on the ground, its people, economics and culture–is a radically different place from what it was then, and even more different from what it was thirty years ago. It’s unlikely that the state would pass another Prop 187 (although a group of Republican troglodytes is trying to get one on the 2008 ballot). In a poll in January by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), 56 percent approved of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to cover all children, including those here illegally, in a state health plan. And a poll last September showed that 58 percent of California adults regarded immigrants as more of an asset to the state than a burden on public services; 35 percent said they were more of a burden. Sixty-five percent of those polled said illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay and apply for work permits.
Those numbers appear to reflect a growing acceptance, especially by the younger generation, of an altogether new California with a browning complexion and a wide spectrum of new economic and cultural features. The vast majority of second-generation Latinos speak English, and in the third generation almost no one knows the “native” language. California’s Latino legislators (twenty-eight of 120 members in the two houses, a higher percentage than Latinos in the electorate) exercise formidable power in such things as university admission policies and education policy generally. California now also has the first Vietnamese-born legislator in the United States, a Republican.
More important, a major new PPIC study, concurring with earlier research, indicates that new immigrants don’t take jobs from native-born Americans, even those with low skills. On the contrary, in the years between 1990 and 2004, years of spiking immigration, immigrants boosted the economy and “induced a 4 percent real wage increase for the average native worker.” More than half of the new Silicon Valley start-ups in recent years (1999-2005) have at least one foreign-born founder; for California as a whole it’s 39 percent. There are now some 600,000 Latino-owned California businesses; 55 percent of long-term Latino immigrants own their own homes, almost the same percentage as for the state as a whole. Among California home buyers in 2005, according to Dowell Myers, a demographer at the University of Southern California, the most common surnames were Garcia, Hernandez, Rodriguez, Lopez and Martinez. Myers, in his new book, Immigrants and Boomers: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America, also points out that contrary to widespread belief, immigrants are not Peter Pans who never grow up and never change. “When immigration is a new event,” he writes, “all the immigrants are new…. The sudden upsurge in immigration to California was shocking to many in the state in the 1970s and 1980s, just as the current upsurge is shocking to residents of other states who have encountered immigration only recently.”
Even the California story leaves lots of questions. The state’s electorate, which is more than 70 percent Anglo, is very different from its population as a whole: Despite California’s Democratic tilt–which is partly the result of the 1994-95 wave of Latino registration–and despite its sizable number of Latino office-holders, the state’s voters are whiter, more affluent and more conservative than California residents as a whole. This “exclusive electorate” (as the PPIC’s Mark Baldassare describes it) tends to be ambivalent, even schizophrenic, about conventional left-right questions, voting at various times in the past decade to ban gay marriage, increase penalties for juvenile crime, require convicted pedophiles to live away from schools and parks, legalize the medical use of marijuana and liberalize penalties for various drug offenses. Voters approved a $3 billion bond for stem-cell research, but rejected attempts to reform the state’s cumbersome super-majority requirement to enact budgets or raise taxes or marginally soften the state’s harsh three-strikes criminal-sentencing law.
It’s probably no coincidence that, statewide, California voters have more trust in the initiative process than in their legislature. Districts are apportioned by population, not by number of voters, so members who come from poor and minority districts with lower registration rates have many fewer voters than those from affluent conservative districts. The legislature thus tends to be more liberal and disproportionately more responsive to Latinos than the electorate as a whole.
In response, the voters use the initiative to trump the politicians. And if there’s been a collective message in those votes, it’s been to maintain the status quo, despite California’s famously dysfunctional governmental and fiscal system: the stringent property-tax limitations imposed by Prop 13 and its progeny, the rigid term limits for legislators, the complex constitutional spending formulas and the resulting confusion between state and local authority. Maintenance of clunky government seems for the moment the price the electorate is willing to pay to keep the newcomers and the services they get in check. The voters tell pollsters they want this creaky system to work, but do they really? California, with a tax load that, as a percentage of income, is below the national average, is stuck between its desire for quality services and its unwillingness to pay the commensurate taxes those services require.
That’s hardly a novel problem, but in California it may also have a lot to do with the reluctance of the people in the exclusive electorate to fund schools and other services generously for people who are not like themselves, and particularly for people who they believe shouldn’t be in this country in the first place. Whenever stories appear about crowded schools or refuting assertions that immigrants are taking the jobs and undercutting the wages of willing American workers, e-mails fly about “the burden of millions of illiterate Mexicans flooding into our schools and hospitals,” or just about “the illegal Mexican peons.” It’s hard to know how representative those messages are–often they echo conservative radio talkers who seem to specialize in the issue–but they also reflect more objective research about voting preferences. “Shares of spending on productive public goods–education, roads, sewers and trash pickup–in U.S. cities (metro areas/urban counties) are inversely related to the [area’s] ethnic fragmentation,” wrote Harvard economist Alberto Alesina and two colleagues in The Quarterly Journal of Economics. Or, in the words of Peter Lindert, an economic historian at the University of California, Davis:
The more a middle-income voter looks at the likely recipient of public aid and says “that could be me” (or my daughter, or my whole family), the greater that voter’s willingness to vote for taxes to fund such aid. Affinity would be fostered by ethnic homogeneity between middle-income voters and the perceived recipients. Conversely, ethnic division would create suspicions that taxpayers’ money will be turned over to “them.”
There’s ample evidence in our own history–the attempts, for example, of Massachusetts Yankees a century ago to create new government institutions for Boston to keep political and fiscal control away from the Irish and other immigrant political groups. As Harvard political scientist Louis Hartz cogently argued a half-century ago, even the Framers of the Constitution, fearing the potential political power of working-class voters and the possibility of leveling assaults from below on their property and that of others, created a system of government checks and balances that was supposed to work as slowly as possible, if at all. The most progressive period in our history–the years of the New Deal and the Great Society, roughly from the early thirties to 1966–was also the time when immigration was at a historic low. The same was true for California in the generation after World War II, when the state’s immigrants came from Iowa, Kansas and Wisconsin, not from Michoacán, Zacatecas or the Philippines, and when the state went on an unprecedented spree of public investment–in water systems, roads, parks, schools, university campuses–and when it vastly expanded its social programs. (Few people recall that in 1967 Governor Ronald Reagan–yes that Reagan–signed the biggest tax increase in California’s history.) In 1960, for the most part, the voters were also the population.
Prop 13, which passed overwhelmingly in 1978 and was probably the biggest of California’s modern political earthquakes, marked the crashing end of that era. Reinforced by the rapid rise in non-European immigration made possible by the end (in 1965) of the national-origins immigration quotas, California’s very success as the realization of the American dream created the consequences–crowding, pollution, social tension and rising taxes–that set off the backlash. Because of its excessive historic optimism from the Gold Rush on, Richard Rodriguez has argued, California has always been the state of disappointment. Prop 13 and the great wave of other restrictive initiatives that followed–term limits; Prop 187; Prop 209, the prohibition against affirmative action in education and public employment, which has since been cloned in Washington and Michigan, among many other states–were expressions of that backlash. In the years after 1978, funding for schools and other services went from among the highest in the nation to below average and often well below.
Like the nation itself, Californians are ambivalent about immigrants. California allows illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at its public colleges, but doesn’t grant them financial aid. During the anti-immigrant era of the early 1990s, it enacted a law prohibiting undocumented immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses, a prohibition that was briefly reversed in 2003, then quickly restored. Now, Governor Schwarzenegger, as part of a comprehensive state health insurance program, wants to give undocumented immigrant kids health insurance, something his own party vehemently opposes.
But the biggest issue raised by California is whether it is willing to undertake the historically unprecedented task of educating the millions of immigrant and second- and third-generation children–children from California’s enormous diversity of languages and cultures–into the skilled, literate population that a high-tech global economy demands. It’s those kids who will be the core of the state’s–and much of the nation’s–workforce and who, if the effort fails, will become part of an increasingly stratified society in which they will be a major part of a permanent underclass. A recent study by the Educational Testing Service concludes that if the educational achievement of American students isn’t raised, American workers, many of them black and Latino, will have lower literacy levels and lower skills than the current labor force.
Put crudely, over the next 25 years or so [the ETS report says], as better educated individuals leave the workforce they will be replaced by those who, on average, have lower levels of education and skill. Over this same period, nearly half of the projected job growth will be concentrated in occupations associated with higher education and skill levels.
The success of this undertaking depends in large part on the ability of the electorate to understand that the education of children already here is not spending on the undeserving but a crucial investment in the nation’s future. It depends on whether they’ll let immigrants come out of the legal shadows–to let them drive, for example, and get legal jobs. Perhaps most crucial, it depends on how fast the large gap between the voters and the population as a whole begins to close. None of this is certain. Given the nation’s changing population, however, it’s almost a certainty that, as on many occasions past, California will be the big test.