What’s the most common surname for new home buyers in Los Angeles County? It’s not "Smith." When a California firm called Axiom DataQuick Information Systems reviewed home titles to uncover the most common last names of buyers in 1997, it found that "Garcia" topped the list. Number two was "Lee"–an Asian name. Numbers three through 10 included "Rodriguez," "Lopez," "Gonzalez," "Martinez," "Hernandez," "Kim," and "Perez." "Smith" was there, too–at number nine. And when DataQuick ran the numbers for the entire state, it came up with Latin and Asian names again, albeit in a different order. Altogether the immigrant presence provided quite a contrast to 1989, when DataQuick’s statewide list of the top 10 contained only one Latin name.
The growing prosperity of California’s immigrants is important when you consider where the country was earlier this decade: mired in a frenzy of anti-immigrant sentiment, led mostly by Republican politicians and intellectuals. Five years ago, restrictionist lawmakers were telling us that immigrants were an underclass who would either stay on welfare forever or, worse, give up the dole to steal American jobs. Nobody was louder on this topic than politicians in California (save, perhaps, the occasional Senator from Wyoming). Some zealots even went so far as to push legislation that would have cut immigrants off from emergency earthquake aid.
At the time, the restrictionists made show of bashing only illegal immigrants. But their message was clear. The Melting Pot was history. Immigrants, Latin immigrants in particular, were likely to remain a "foreign" cultural group, separate from real Americans. Moreover this group was an economic burden on all the rest of us, a burden that would grow with time. Ultimately the bashers failed to enact their most draconian limits into our latest immigration law.
Today, after the years have accumulated some experience with these newcomers, the fears look pretty badly overblown. For one thing, they aren’t stealing jobs. In fact they are helping the economy to grow–grow at the lowest unemployment rate in decades. There’s even evidence that America would be growing faster if we had more immigrants.
Several regions, including immigrant havens like New York and California, actually are confronting labor shortages, due in part to bottlenecks in immigration procedures that the bashers put in place. Nor are all these shortages limited to the much-vaunted high tech jobs. Indeed, West Coast fruit growers are so concerned about finding pickers that they have supported a pilot guest worker program to bring 20,000 agriculture workers from Mexico and abroad. Yesterday’s wetbacks have become today’s desirables.
Then there is the evidence of the immigrants’ new prosperity, evidence like home purchases. Gregory Rodriguez at California’s Pepperdine University found that the core of the new Latino middle class is U.S.-born Latins who are rapidly reaching the same level of income that other Californians enjoy. But a group the bashers suggested was less likely to make it–foreign-born immigrants–is also doing fine.
They are increasing their income and buying homes–in short, making their place in America. Another study, by Nancy Bolton for UCLA’s Anderson School, points to the economic benefits this new middle class is bringing to the rest of the community. It shows that Latinos have been entering the market for moderately priced homes in increasing numbers in places like the Bay Area–propping up sagging property values along the way.
And what about the restrictionists’ old theories that Hispanics aren’t like previous immigrant groups, that they would never participate in the American political process and so on? That too is proving wrong. This spring the L.A. Times reported that Political Data Inc., a pollster, found that newly naturalized Latinos turned out for the 1996 Presidential election at a greater rate than other citizens.
Nor are Latins doing another thing the bashers warned against–voting reflexively with "Latin interest groups." In fact, Golden State Latinos have become an important political force in restraining ethnic power-mongering. Hispanic civic leaders spoke out aggressively for Prop. 227, and despite massive spending aimed at the Spanish vote by the proposition’s opponents, exit polls show four in 10 Hispanics voted to curtail bilingual education.
All this is not to say that immigration doesn’t bring disruption. Like any other change, it does. But immigrants, a group that includes California Latinos without college degrees, are an asset to a vibrant economy such as ours. It’s a lesson the politicians ought to learn.