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February 1997, Volume 4, Number 2

Ethnic Los Angeles

UCLA hosted a conference January 17-18, 1997 to release the book Ethnic Los Angeles, a four-part, 15-chapter book written by 21 researchers affiliated with UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research. The book uses Census data from 1970, 1980, and 1990 to examine the impact of immigration on the demography and economy of Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties, and to assess the status of the major immigrant groups in the region.

Los Angeles is distinguished by the scale and speed by which immigration transformed the region. Los Angeles had proportionately more immigrants in 1990 than New York City had in 1910, and the V-shaped number of immigrants in Los Angeles--dropping after the 1920s to reach a low in the 1940s and 1950s before increasing in the 1970s and 1980s--was sharper than in New York, which remained the major US destination for immigrants until the 1970s.

California received 14.4 million immigrants--or 33 percent of US immigrants-- between 1980 and 1996 compared with 14.5 million--30 percent of US immigrants-- settling in New York between 1901 and 1920. The top five countries of origin between 1980 and 1996 were Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, El Salvador and China. The top five countries of origin between 1901 and 1920 were Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, UK and Ireland.

In 1980, Los Angeles county was 28 percent Latino, and in 1990, its population was 38 percent Latino. In 1990, 3.2 million of Los Angeles county's 9.4 million residents were born abroad. Between 1980 and 1996, some 14.5 million immigrants arrived in the US, and 4.8 million settled in California. Between 1901 and 1920, some 14.5 immigrants arrived in the US and 30 percent settled in New York.

About 20 percent of the immigrants in New York in 1930 said they could not speak English, but one-third of the foreign-born population in California in 1990 was not proficient in English. It is hard to protect newcomers from frauds--the California Department of Consumer Affairs accepts complaints in languages other than English, but between August 1995 and July 1996, there were only 592 foreign language complaints, less than .01 percent of all complaints.

The book finds that the major fault lines in southern California are education or class, not race or ethnicity, thus disputing the notion that California will evolve into a society with a white and Asian overclass and a Latino and Black underclass. Black, Asian and Latino residents with more education and skills have widened the gap between themselves and non-educated Blacks and Latinos since 1970.

The Los Angeles data support the hypothesis that, in the 1990s, a process of segmented assimilation seems to characterize the integration of many immigrants. This means that well-educated immigrants with high incomes move to US suburbs and blend in with native-born residents. Lower income immigrants, by contrast, are concentrated in barrios, where origin country language and cultural traits that can lead to "segmented rejection" are often reinforced. Instead of assimilating at a slower pace, unskilled immigrants may remain isolated in a way that reinforces their rejection.

The study emphasizes that the 1.1 million college-educated Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants are doing very well, as these often immigrant professionals earn more than similar US-born persons. However, the book also emphasizes that Latino immigrants with little education are faring poorly in the US, even though many US employers prefer to hire Latino immigrants through ethnic networks to obtain flexible workers. In some cases, Latino immigrants have more workers per household, so that household income lags less than individual incomes.

Other major findings of the study include: immigration has increased unemployment among African Americans, as strong ethnic job networks combine with employer preferences to give Latinos and Asians entry-level jobs in factory work, hotel and restaurant employment and janitorial jobs. However, most of the recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America seem to be trapped in dead-end jobs in highly competitive industries, such as clothing and furniture manufacturing, where the large labor supply has depressed wages.

The concluding chapter urges government to raise the minimum wage, encourage unions and do more to educate immigrant children.

Waldinger, Roger and Mehdi Bozorgmehr (Eds). 1996. Ethnic Los Angeles. New York: Russell Sage Foundation. Available by tel 800-666-2211 or fax 800-668-2877; hardcover, $45: ISBN 0-87154-901-8. softcover, $25 ISBN 0-87154-902-6