Local Factors That Shape Immigrant Integration

12.12.2013 | Sometimes when you live through history, you don’t see the moment when it all began to change. We may be at one of those moments.

Forces are coalescing and changes are underway in the civil rights battle of this era: immigration.

It seems ages ago that Hazleton, Pennsylvania, was in the news for its draconian approach to an influx of immigrants. Remember Hazleton? Faced with an influx of newcomers into the largely white community, the city passed an ordinance to fine landlords who rented to supposed “illegals.”

In the intervening years, a recession grabbed the nation’s attention and immigration took on new proportions with movements like the Dream Act. On the ground in cities across the country, immigrants are demanding a voice and becoming a political force.

Yet not all cities are willingly ceding the battle.

That was evident in the gathering at the University of Southern California last week convened by BRR’s Manuel Pastor and John Mollenkopf. They’d asked leaders in the immigrant rights movement for feedback on their forthcoming book about what one participant called the new epic power struggle.

The struggle they’re talking about is a struggle over power—to be included in the decision making apparatus that guides our lives, local and regional politics.

So what influences that struggle? Why are some communities more receptive to new voices while others are so hostile?

The answer to that question is found in a local metro area’s set of unique constraints. Just as all politics is local, as renowned House Speaker Tip O’Neil put so famously put it, all integration is local.

The factors that influence the local response—the set of constraints—include:

  • Rate of immigration: The pace of change can be a shock to the system.
  • Racialization: The ability of an area to treat the immigrant group as an “other.” If one immigrant group dominates, anti-immigrant demagogues can more easily create a scapegoat than if the immigrant community is diverse.
  • Growing age gaps: The difference in the share of the population that is over 65 and under age 18. As one presenter put it, Phoenix has the brownest young population and whitest old population. Generational battles over resources ensue.
  • Business community’s response: Framing is key. Framed as critical to a region’s growth, immigration becomes a positive—and a counterpoint to anti-immigrant groups.
  • New gateways or old: Areas with long histories of immigration are typically more welcoming.
  • Systems on the ground: A strong base of philanthropy and nonprofits and a mobilized movement make integration more likely.

The play of these factors is evident in two California metro areas: the Inland Empire southeast of Los Angeles, and San Jose (Silicon Valley).

The Inland Empire has been called LA’s hinterland, and also the last great hope for California’s middle class. In the 1970s, it was the place for white middle-class families to flee the city. In the 1980s, black Angelenos started relocating, much to the chagrin of the whites. The Ku Klux Klan met the new residents in Fontana. More recently, the Inland Empire is where the immigrant dream crashed and burned in the foreclosure crisis.

The massive ethnic shift—from 8 percent foreign-born in 1980 to 22 percent in 2010, mostly Latino—plus weak social institutions and other factors have hindered immigrant political integration.

The sharp influx of largely Latino immigrants has allowed the narrative to become all about the cost of immigrants, from their toll on schools to the costs on taxpayers. “We have to be careful about asking for more school funding for largely immigrant children because we don’t want to hurt US citizens” goes the rationale. However, that narrative overlooks the fact that nearly two-thirds Latinos are native born. In this scenario, somehow “Latino” equals immigrant, regardless of the reality.

The Inland Empire also lacks strong social institutions. The area sprawls widely, making service delivery difficult, and there is no history of organizations working together. Those that do exist are constantly playing defense. There is little philanthropy in the area, and even when federal, state, or county funding is available, the organizations lack the capacity to absorb it. Instead, the funding goes to Los Angeles, whose organizers and service providers then parachute in and out of the Inland Empire, never establishing a strong base to build local capacity. Even with the best-designed federal policy, if there’s nothing on the ground, nothing will take root—and may even reinforce inequality.

The area’s political base is also conservative, which pushes politicians, even Democrats, to the right.

In contrast is San Jose. Among the five case studies the new book considers, San Jose had the highest share of foreign-born, and it too has seen significant change in a short time. But unlike the Inland Empire, there is no one dominant immigrant group, which makes it harder to scapegoat. And unlike the Inland Empire, San Jose put out the welcome mat. As we all know by now, Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech titans need engineers, and so far anyway, we have to import them.

The business community set the tone with a message that immigration is good for business, and the ideas became institutionalized in the civic infrastructure. Organizations in San Jose compete to be more welcoming in a race to the top.

This tone has spillover effects for other less-well-off groups. The Dreamers and undocumented get heard in San Jose. In fact, it is the only place where recently naturalized residents vote at higher rates than others. Naturalized in an era of anti-immigrant sentiment, they are, as Howard Beale screamed in “Network,” “mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Indeed, on a scorecard of economic mobility, warmth of reception, number of organizations serving the community, degree of immigrants voting, and other indicators, San Jose is the one to beat.

San Jose, along with older immigrant gateways like New York and Chicago, has learned a key lesson: A place does not become resilient by kicking people out or ignoring them.

Creating a resilient metro area means devising a plan, and building the political and service infrastructure to develop human capital in a way that benefits everyone.


Photo/ Josh LeClair

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