Migrate, then integrate

ImmigrationSocial IssuesPoliticsMigrationMinority GroupsIllegal ImmigrantsEnvironmental Issues

IT'S TOO BAD CONGRESS is still stuck on the issue of immigration because, here in Los Angeles, we're getting ready to move on to bigger and perhaps better things: the rise of the post-immigrant population.

Back in February, a USC study reported that Los Angeles County had seen a 30% drop in new immigrant arrivals in the 1990s. In March, the Urban Institute released a report showing that even as the nation at large experienced an increase in its undocumented population between 2002 and 2004, L.A. actually lost roughly 15,000 illegal immigrants. And now the Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey tells us that, for the first time since at least 1960, the foreign-born percentage of Los Angeles residents is going down.

In the first half of this decade, according to census estimates, the percentage of L.A. County residents who were born outside the U.S. dropped from 36.2% to 36.0%. In the city, that figure declined from 40.9% to 40.3%. No, the percentage slip isn't enormous, but its historical significance for our region could not be greater. It signals the emergence of an era in which integration will become a significantly more important issue than immigration.

Consider the demographic trends of the last half a century. Since 1960, newcomers have become an ever-increasing portion of the population. In L.A., the number of foreign-born residents grew by an average of 50% every decade. In the 1970s, the growth rate reached a phenomenal 96%. This means that, as the city grew, it also fractured. Newcomers, many of them undocumented, had a tenuous toehold in U.S. society and generally sought comfort among their own. As has happened throughout U.S. history, late-20th century immigrants sought to re-create the sounds and smells and networks of home in their new land. The once highly homogenous City of Angels became increasingly divided along not just racial but cultural and linguistic lines.

In their attempt to respond to this growing diversity, government, business and the media came to perceive Los Angeles as a confederation of isolated, self-sustaining ethnic enclaves. The idea of integration was trumped by the need for outreach. At the time, it made sense. To navigate this amazing diversity, entities from social service agencies to bank marketing divisions developed separate, linguistically and culturally unique appeals targeting an array of distinct "communities." The target audience within those communities was generally foreign-born householders who had arrived in the U.S. within a decade or two.

Particularly vis-a-vis the growing Latino population, many mediating civic organizations that had once sought to include Angelenos of many backgrounds now preferred to set up separate "Latino programs" and programming. Because immigration was driving Latino population growth, "Latino outreach" began to be conducted with the cultural practices of foreign-born adults in mind. For example, rather than expanding its appeal to U.S.-born, English-speaking Latinos, local public television station KCET chose to put a Spanish-language program on the air. Likewise, even as many newspapers began to publish Spanish-language editions, their commitment to including English-dominant Latinos in their staffs and stories flagged.

But with the immigrant portion of the population in decline, this way of understanding and approaching diversity in our city is quickly becoming outdated. This doesn't mean that the region's ethnic metamorphosis is over, but simply that it will be less immigrant-driven. Indeed, this demographic shift is hastening the arrival of the moment that every migration experiences, when the U.S.-born children of immigrants begin to eclipse their parents.

Often bilingual, this second generation tends to play the role of mediators for the first. While less-educated immigrants can spend their lives acclimating to this country, the second generation actively negotiates the gap between their parents' home culture and the American mainstream. Raised on Britney and Buffy and schooled in English, it is this cohort that begins to go beyond the cultural enclave. They are not immigrants but ethnic Americans. And for all the talk of trans-nationalism, they wouldn't quite fit back in Sinaloa, Uttar Pradesh or Surat Thani.

In other words, if the second generation that is coming of age today is anything like previous children of immigrants, they will not settle for outreach but will increasingly demand full inclusion in their country of birth. This will require us all to develop a more holistic notion of diversity, one that incorporates rather than segregates difference and emphasizes cross-ethnic ties over group-specific appeals. The rise of the second generation should remind us that "community" doesn't just refer to ethnic and other minority groups but to the people who live together in any given geographic location. It is a sense of solidarity and common purpose among neighbors that we now have a greater chance to rebuild.


grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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