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CPRC March 7, 1997

CA Policy Seminar Immigration Panel


Which way LA?

Immigration and Ethnic Change in southern California


Roger Waldinger

Friday, March 7, 1997

NY versus LA

Immigrants in LA Today

Labor Market Issues

Policy Implications


Roger Waldinger, the co-editor of Ethnic Los Angeles, on March 7, 1997 discussed in Sacramento the process of segmented assimilation that seems to be underway in southern California: well-educated immigrants soon achieve high incomes, move to US suburbs, and blend in with native-born residents, while lower income immigrants tend to be concentrated in barrios, where origin country language and cultural traits that can lead to "segmented rejection" are often reinforced.

Ethnic Los Angeles is a new book written by 21 researchers affiliated with UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research that used Census data from 1970, 1980, and 1990 to examine the impact of immigration on Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, Riverside and Ventura counties, and to assess the status of the major immigrant groups in the region. About 20 percent of all US immigrants are in the five-county study area.

NY versus LA

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 4.8 million immigrants between 1980 and 1996, or 33 percent of the 14.5 million immigrants who arrived in the US in these years. New York between 1901 and 1920, in comparison, received about 4.3 million immigrants, or 30 percent of US immigrants.

The top five countries of origin of immigrants arriving 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. 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.

Immigrants in LA Today

In 1990, 3.2 million of Los Angeles county's 9.4 million residents were born abroad, and one-half of LA's immigrants are from Mexico. In 1980, Los Angeles county was 28 percent Latino, and in 1990, its population was 38 percent Latino. This change in ethnic composition was very rapid; Waldinger emphasized that southern California added residents in the 1950s and 1960s through internal migration as midwesterners fled from ethnic neighborhoods in urban areas, thus creating a more homogeneous "American city" in southern California.

US immigrants, when ranked by their education, are grouped at the extremes--they are more likely to have more than a college degree, and more likely to have less than a high school education. In LA, there are a disproportionate number of the less-than-high-school educated immigrants.

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.

A process of segmented assimilation seems to characterize the integration of many immigrants-- 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, sometimes earning more than comparable US-born persons as soon as they arrive. 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.

Labor Market Issues

Ethnic LA used a series of indicators to examine the role of immigrants in the LA-area labor market. Its major findings include:

1. Among Blacks, labor force participation increases with education, i.e., many Blacks with less than a high school education are not in the labor force. Among Hispanics, especially Mexican-born immigrants, labor force participation is very high regardless of the level of education.


2. Immigrants are successful in finding jobs in the LA labor market, but many of the jobs pay relatively low wages, and offer few prospects for upward mobility. Many Mexican workers use ethnic networks to find jobs, and employer preferences for Latino immigrants in entry-level jobs give new arrivals an advantage in finding factory work, hotel and restaurant employment and janitorial jobs--it was noted that the work place language of many LA area factories is Spanish.

Although it may be easy for recent immigrants to get into low-wage jobs in LA, many 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.

Ethnic LA authors constructed an index of dis-similarity that asked--what percentage of the workers in a particular ethnic or racial group would have had to change their occupation to have the same occupational distribution as Mexican immigrants in 1990? The index showed that the networks Mexican immigrants use to find jobs are also locking them into niches that are very different from the occupations held by Blacks, Whites, and Asians--an ethnic niche was defined as an occupation in which a particular group was over-represented, in comparison to its share of the labor force--by 50 percent or more. By this definition, 70 of the 90 manufacturing SICs that employed 1000 or more workers in 1990 were Mexican ethnic niches.


Another way to think about ethnic niches is to ask what percentage of the persons in each racial or ethnic group would have to change occupations to be distributed across occupations in the same manner that Mexican-born persons were. In 1990, 55 percent of the Blacks would have had to shift occupations, 60 percent of the whites, and 65 percent of the Asians would have had to change occupations to be distributed like Mexican immigrants.

Policy Implications

The concluding chapter urges government to raise the minimum wage, encourage unions and do more to educate immigrant children. It was noted that many of the Mexican-born high school drop outs did not begin high school and then drop out; instead, they never enrolled because they went into the labor force.

Teri Parker of the Department of Finance asked two questions: what is the role of government in integrating immigrants who are struggling for upward mobility, and which level of government has the responsibility to help immigrants? The starting point in California is that there is too little money to launch ambitious new public programs, so that any government assistance is more likely to be the result of influencing private actions (minimum wage etc) than extending welfare and other benefits to legal and illegal immigrants.

One point of discussion was what to do about the estimated 500,000 adults who might enter the CA labor force as a result of welfare reform. If the ethnic networks exclude US-born persons who have not recently been in the labor force, what might government do to help ex-welfare recipients to develop their own networks? Some thought that a revitalized Employment Service could play a leading role in developing new networks in the California labor market.

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