Orange County Register
President Obama’s amnesty edict, likely to be the first of other such measures, all but guarantees California’s increasingly Latino future. But, sadly, for all the celebration among progressives, the media, Democratic politicans and in the Latino political community, there has been precious little consideration about the future of the newly legalized immigrants, as well as future generations of Latinos, in the state.
Although some publications, notably the New York Times, regard California as something of a model for the integration of the undocumented, the reality on the ground is far less attractive. Even as Latinos, now the state’s largest ethnic group, gain greater influence culturally and politically, many are falling into a kind of racial caste system.
California has roughly one-third of the country’s undocumented immigrants and, in some locales – notably, Los Angeles – they constitute roughly one in 10 residents – or some 1 million people – 85 percent of them from either Mexico or Central America. As of now, these residents, longtimers and recent arrivals, pose, among other things, a potential challenge to local governments trying to serve a new base of largely poor, and generally poorly educated, migrants.
Today, public agencies in Los Angeles County, notes former county supervisor Pete Schabarum, are facing a “an already impossible fiscal dilemma” and now will need to spend an additional $190 million, without hope of federal compensation, on the newly legalized population. The stress on other key institutions, such as schools and hospitals, will also grow, particularly if more foreign nationals, suspecting the likelihood of amnesty, are encouraged to come here.
In the past, we could have looked with confidence at this new population as a net plus. But that may no longer be so much the case, given the current economic direction of California. It has become increasingly difficult in the state for many industries – such as agriculture, manufacturing, construction and logistics – that traditionally have employed Latino immigrants. In contrast, the one industry favored by Sacramento’s political class – the technology firms synonymous with Silicon Valley – has not engendered much progress for Latinos, whose incomes there have dropped while those of whites and Asians have grown.
Perhaps most alarming, few among California’s Latino politicians have a strategy to reverse these trends. Rising Latino figures, such as newly elected Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, have chosen to link themselves with gentry liberals, such as billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. They have embraced the gentry’s regulatory and energy agenda – cap and trade, subsidies for “renewable” energy and hostility toward suburban housing – which conflicts directly with the economic interests of Latino voters, particularly those benefiting from President Obama’s immigration directives.
This stance may make de Leon the toast of the town in San Francisco, Marin County, Malibu and other white gentry havens. He recently celebrated his elevation to the Senate’s top post with an opulent party at the Disney Concert Hall in Downtown Los Angeles, an event derided by the liberal Sacramento Beeas an “ostentatious display” and a “special interests ball.” Not so worthy of celebration are the economic conditions facing many of his constituents. Large swaths of his district, such as East Los Angeles, suffer high rates of unemployment.
One key here has been the decline of manufacturing – down 34 percent statewide the past 15 years – as Latino politicians seem to barely shrug as employers flee ever-higher taxes, regulatory constraints and higher electricity prices. Manufacturing, which accounts for a larger share than any other sector of the region’s economic output, has lost more than 300,000 jobs in the Los Angeles area since 2001.
Another key blue-collar sector, construction, is up 12 percent, but is far from recovering the 40 percent of jobs it lost statewide during the recession.
These losses have taken away many of the traditional avenues for upward mobility. As a result, some predominately Latino communities, from the Central Valley to Compton, suffer double-digit unemployment. Overall, the Latino unemployment in California is above 10 percent while the rate in pro-industry Texas is under 7 percent. Latinos in California are also considerably less likely to own their own business than their Lone Star State counterparts.
Long-term California Latinos’ prospects are most undermined by the ailing state education system, whose reform is generally opposed by the Latino political class. The new state Senate leader, like many other Latino politicians, spent much of their careers working for, and then reaping rich support from, public-sector unions, notably the all-powerful California Teachers Association. Not surprising, de Leon proudly backed the successful CTA candidate in the recent race for state superintendent of schools.
The unions and politicians may have gained by this association, but not so a great many Latino youngsters. A recent article in the National Journalnoted Latinos in the same San Jose neighborhood that produced Cesar Chavez still suffer terrible schools, with one-third of third-graders unable even to read. Amazingly, California’s Latinos are even underperforming their Texas counterparts, despite lower school funding in the Lone Star State.
This belies the common assumption among progressives, here and elsewhere, that the Golden State is an exemplar of social progress while the Lone Star State is a reactionary backwater that is toxic for both immigrants covered by President Obama’s decrees and legal Latino residents. Compared with the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Houston Independent School District, faced with similar demographics, has twice won the Broad Education Prize and, in relative terms, seems a model of flexibility and innovation.
Equally important, the newcomers face daunting challenges entering the property-owning middle class. Due in part to regulatory restraints, less than two in five Latinos in Los Angeles or San Francisco own their home, compared with large majorities of Latino homeowners in places like Phoenix and Houston.
It now takes more than 12 times the median Latino household income to buy a home in the Bay Area and more than nine times in the Los Angeles-Orange County area. In contrast, the multiple is roughly three in metropolitan areas such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Phoenix and Atlanta.
The rise of housing prices in the state, as well as meager income gains, have managed to reduce the percentage of Latinos getting new mortgages from almost half in 2006 to 22 percent today.
Given these trends, one would assume that politicians representing California Latinos would favor policies that would spur growth in housing as well as other blue-collar industries. Yet, as these industries have faded, identity politics, instead, have ascended, particularly since the passage of Proposition 187 in 1994, which aimed to limit access to public services by illegal immigrants. Stanford political scientist Gary Segura suggests that upwardly California Latino voters were shifting toward the GOP until Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s immigrant-bashing Prop. 187 campaign all but obliterated this trajectory.
This explains how California increasingly diverges both from the experience of other immigrants over the past century, and what is occurring today in some other states. In Georgia, Kansas and Nevada, as well as Texas, upward of 40 percent of Latino voters this year supported GOP candidates, compared with more than 70 percent lockstep support for Democrats in California.
The problem here is not party per se – traditional Democrats historically combined liberal views with a strong pro-growth economic orientation. But we now see a shift within California Latino politicians away from support for broad-based growth and toward a greater reliance on redistribution and increased dependence on government. This approach may hurt their constituents but conveniently aligns with the preferences of wealthy white liberals in Marin County, San Francisco and other gentry locales, whose interest is to restrain economic growth.
One has to wonder, in my case as a non-Latino Californian here for over four decades, where this will all lead. One consequence could be to increase the state’s already large population living in poverty and boost California’s share of welfare recipients, roughly a third of the national total. The potential long term for a dangerous cocktail of racial and class resentment is not hard to envision.
Latino voters, and all Californians, must demand something better. A good start would be a greater emphasis on broad-based economic growth, which could provide a ladder to the middle class for more Latinos, including the undocumented. But this requires political leaders who are focused less on appealing to San Francisco billionaires and more on the interests of ordinary Californians, many of them Latino. This could turn the presidential directive on immigration into something that builds a better future rather than becoming just another measure to institutionalize further poverty and patterns of dependence.