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Opinion L.A.

Opinion Opinion L.A.

Why City Hall needs an immigrant affairs office [Blowback]

It should be self-evident that a city like Los Angeles -- with nearly half the population having come from outside the country -- would be well served by an Office of Immigrant Affairs at City Hall. But according to Paul Whitefield, who questioned the office's value in his Aug. 27 Opinion L.A. blog post, rebooting the program established by former Mayor James Hahn's administration would distract from basic city services.

Credit Whitefield for making some good points about the need for new Mayor Eric Garcetti to pay attention to these basics, including fixing streets, funding the fire department and improving transit. But his main point is shortsighted and ultimately not in the best interests of Los Angeles.

Immigrant integration is not a special interest. Forty percent of the city's population are immigrants, and 64% of our kids have an immigrant parent. And given Whitefield’s dig at the pledge to have the office help undocumented residents, consider the fact that 1 in 4 Los Angeles kids have a least one undocumented parent, and more than 80% of those kids are U.S.-born. If you care about our kids and their future contributions to our region, you must care about immigrants.

Moreover, immigrants are, as Whitefield hopes, "following in the tradition of millions of other immigrants to America's shores," and doing the majority of the work to integrate themselves.  They are working double shifts at low-wage jobs to make ends meet and to free up time for the high-skilled workers who cannot clean their offices, wash their cars or cook for their kids. And they are far more likely to be self-employed -- in other words, they're job creators -- than their U.S.-born counterparts. Partly because of this, research on America's metropolitan regions shows that those places with a higher share of foreign-born residents are more likely to achieve economic growth over time (even accounting for the fact that growth attracts immigrants).

Perhaps Whitefield lives in a neighborhood where there are few immigrants. After all, L.A.'s geography is one where residents of one neighborhood can be unaware of a problem facing Angelenos across town. So while potholes may be a top priority for some, access to grocery stores or day care -- or citizenship -- may be major concerns for others. Accordingly, the mayor of Los Angeles must take a comprehensive view of the city and try and respond to its all its needs.

Or perhaps Whitefield is just misinformed about the intent of the office. So let us clarify: Immigrant integration means improved economic mobility for, enhanced civic participation by, and receiving society openness to immigrants. Because immigrants make significant contributions to their regions, both newcomers and the receiving society have a responsibility to help them integrate. Both groups benefit as they work together to build secure, vibrant and cohesive communities. 

And it's not a new thing: Previous waves of immigrants benefited from settlement houses, unions and other institutions that facilitated their social and economic integration. Similar but updated city services can perform such tasks today. Consider this: With 459,000 undocumented Angelenos, legalization with a path to citizenship would result in a boost in annual income in the city by between $762 million and $1.3 billion, according to researchers at USC. If immigration reform comes from Washington and the city assists, the multiplier effects would be felt in grocery stores, clothing stores and various service businesses. Imagine how many potholes the increased sales tax revenue would fix.

Other cities seem to be convinced by these arguments. New York City has its own Office of Immigrant Affairs that works to identify city services that are accessible to immigrants, support immigrant-owned businesses and establish conversations between city officials and community leaders to determine the best outreach strategies to immigrant communities -- who are, let's not forget, constituents.  Chicago has followed suit with an Office of New Americans, as has Seattle.

The L.A. Office of Immigrant Affairs will not only learn from those efforts but build on private efforts, such as the Council on Immigrant Integration, a diverse set of institutions convened by the California Community Foundation. Meeting four times each year to coordinate action, it includes representatives from the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the Los Angeles Police Department, the L.A. Unified School District, labor unions, community groups and many others.  The council has called for a statewide Office for New Americans to address the sort of issues the city office will tackle.

Before posting a snark-filled piece on a serious effort by the city to help immigrants (including an unnecessary dig at the fact the new director of the office has, horror of horrors, a doctorate in political science), Whitefield should have done his homework. Had he done so, he would have acknowledged this: Immigrants are Los Angeles, their children are the future of our region, and working with them to make a better city is in the best interest of us all. 

María Blanco is vice president of civic engagement at the California Community Foundation, and Manuel Pastor is director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC.

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Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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