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California, Here They Come

Times Staff Writers

Some planned their moves with meticulous care, plotting over many years to swap dank skies for California’s enduring sunshine. Others decided on a whim over wine: Goodbye, Queens; hello, Temecula.

Some were drawn by age-old lures -- opportunity, a shot at reinvention -- while others fled homelands steeped in poverty and pain.

And then there were those who simply fell in love. With a woman. A landscape. Or even, like Pegah Hashemi, an idea.

The architectural designer landed near Hancock Park last August, from Iran via stints on the East Coast. In the chaos and crowds and freewheeling culture of Los Angeles, she finally found a home.

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“Any other place you go, there’s a majority and a minority,” said Hashemi, 27. “But there are so many immigrants here that the majority disappears. It’s liberating. You can grow in whatever direction you want.”

Even as real estate prices rise to fearsome heights and freeways become impassable, even as wildfires consume some homes and rampaging mud swallows others, even as experts declare the state ungovernable and a major earthquake inevitable, the refugees from New York and Manila and Tehran, from Texas and Nepal and Washington, D.C., continue to come to California.

For all the attention focused of late on illegal immigration, California is by far the favorite destination of legal immigrants to the United States -- about 200,000 in 2005 alone. Moreover, although the numbers fluctuate with the economy, the Golden State remains a powerful domestic magnet as well, with about 600,000 people from other states arriving here last year.

No matter how taxing life sometimes seems here in the most populous state in America, newcomers still outnumber defectors, drawn by varying notions of the California dream.

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“California is one of the very few states whose allure has never faded,” said Marc Perry, chief of the Census Bureau’s Population Distribution Branch. “The faces of the immigrants change, the tongues they speak change, but the people keep coming.”

Why do they come? One of the strongest and most enduring reasons is the sunshine itself. “A Climate for Health & Wealth Without Cyclones or Blizzards,” boasted an 1885 booklet from the Chicago-based California Immigration Commission.

It worked then. It works now. Just ask Thu Hoang, 43.

This winter, Thu and her husband, Hung, were visiting relatives in the San Fernando Valley. They decided to take a weekend jaunt to San Diego. Lunchtime brought them to beautiful, wealthy La Jolla.

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Back in New York, it was dreary. But the French bistro they chose was soaked in sunshine. There were flowers everywhere. People looked happy.

They had just been served the wine when Hung proposed rearranging their lives.

“Let’s move to California,” he said.

An information technology manager for IBM, Thu has teams in India, China and North Carolina. Her bosses don’t care where she lives. Hung, 57, is a retired information technology executive and musician. In March, they came to scout out houses, choosing one in Temecula twice as big as their apartment in Queens. On April 28, they moved in.

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“Six months ago we wouldn’t have known where Temecula is,” said Thu. No fashion hot spot, the Inland Empire city has few venues for Thu to wear the 100 pairs of shoes that accompanied her here.

No matter. “It’s so beautiful here, it feels like a perpetual vacation,” Hung said.

For every Los Angeles County resident who told Public Policy Institute of California pollsters in March 2005 that they planned to be gone by decade’s end, there seems to be someone like Terry or Kristin Kent.

Terry was born, grew up and has spent all of his 32 years in Wisconsin. The only exception was college, for which he voyaged to neighboring Minnesota. That’s where he met Kristin, who has otherwise spent all of her 29 years in Wisconsin.

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Their families are in Wisconsin. Their friends are in Wisconsin. They love Wisconsin.

Yet when Kristin got her master’s degree in business administration this spring from the University of Wisconsin, the couple refused to apply for any jobs that were not in Los Angeles.

“The world is so big, and there’s only so much time,” said Terry, a lawyer who specializes in land and water use issues. “So much of what the world has, you just can’t find in Wisconsin. But you can find it here.”

The Kents just rented a one-bedroom apartment in Los Feliz that costs double what they were paying in Madison. Kristin envisions a typical Saturday morning: wandering the neighborhood, stopping in a cafe, heading to the beach -- “and doing it in January.”

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Not everyone comes for the sunshine, of course. Galina Angarova was wooed in part by what all that sunlight produces. Living in Moscow, she met and married a Northern Californian. They moved to San Francisco in August; she never wants to leave.

In the Siberian village where she was born, she said, “not a lot of things are available, even food. You will not find an avocado.... A lot of my friends don’t know what sushi is.”

Angarova, 30, is eating her way through San Francisco. “The number of good restaurants here on Fillmore Street,” she said, “exceeds the number of good restaurants in all of Moscow.”

The quality and range of the food here are indeed a wonder, thanks to some of the world’s most bountiful soil and accomplished chefs. Even the grumpiest Californians would concede that. But try driving across town to a favorite restaurant, they say. Try to find parking at your favorite market.

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Still, newcomers tend to see congestion differently from longtime residents’ view. When Vasinee Florey, 45, left suburban Bangkok for suburban San Francisco, the first thing she noticed about the traffic was that “it’s better” here.

“You should see the traffic in Thailand, especially in Bangkok,” she said. “You cannot go far in an hour.”

Everything’s relative, in other words.

Hans Johnson, a demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California, crunched census statistics to uncover the reasons why some people come and go.

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California’s humming economy was the strongest draw; the unemployment rate in several big counties, including Orange, San Diego and Riverside, is significantly under the national rate. More than a third of the arrivals from other states told the Census Bureau recently that they’re here for job reasons.

But an equal number said they had left California because they’d gotten a job elsewhere. An additional 5% of those departing over the last five years -- 134,000 adults -- went in search of cheaper housing.

In a state where the ability to afford a house is at record lows, that’s not surprising. What’s truly puzzling is the 84,000 or so adults who said they were moving to California for a less expensive home. Maybe they’re all from Manhattan, or maybe it is just further testament to the state’s ability to induce derangement.

Migration between the states is a murky area. The Census Bureau, using Internal Revenue Service data, calculates that, since 2000, California has lost 340,000 more people to other states than it has gained from them. But the state Department of Finance, using what it says are more accurate data from driver’s licenses, calculates a net gain of 366,000.

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Sunshine and sea and sky are all very well, but in the end, opportunity is what really matters.

It’s been that way for generations. As a Southern Pacific Railroad poster promised in 1905: “Come to California and see for yourself. Millions of chances for happiness and riches.”

Think Gold Rush adventurers and those who followed: the merchants who outfitted a state in the making and the engineers who designed the railroads and irrigation systems, the bridges and harbors. The Dustbowl refugees in the 1930s and aerospace workers in the 1950s, and those seeking high-tech riches in the 1990s. For generations, migrants sought a future for their families through the verdant agricultural fields.

Think older men like Pedro Pinto, 60, who left Jalisco, Mexico, this spring for the uncertainty of Los Angeles, where he hopes to find work and send money back home: “I’m looking for a job, any kind of job,” he said through an interpreter at a labor center.

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And young men like Jason Hall, 28, who arrived in Fresno in August from Staten Island via Houston. “I wouldn’t come here if there were no jobs,” said Hall, whose in-laws live in the Central Valley. “Wherever there’s opportunity is where I’ll go.”

A computer systems analyst for the county of Fresno, Hall lives with his family in a small apartment with a view of the railroad tracks. But he has his sights set on bigger things. When law school starts this fall at the University of San Diego, Hall will be there, notebook in hand. His wife Tenisha, 26, hopes to soon have her bachelor’s degree, eked out online while caring for their toddlers.

“I don’t ever see myself living in the middle of the country again,” Jason said. “I look out over the water and see limitless opportunity.”

At least one debate about immigration has kept pace with the successive waves of arrivals like the Halls. Are people pulled here or pushed here? Are they running to hope, or fleeing from disarray?

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Suman and Nirmala Roka are refugees from Nepal. With that small Himalayan country in the throes of upheaval as an ancient monarchy gives way to an uncertain future, Suman applied for, and won, a green card in the U.S. immigration lottery. The couple -- with one 5-year-old child and a baby on the way -- ended up in Cerritos on Dec. 5.

Relatives in Los Angeles helped cushion the family’s landing. A hotel professional in Katmandu, Suman, 39, now commutes in a secondhand Honda Civic to Artesia, where he works the night shift at a 7-Eleven.

“In Nepal, the hotels are closing down, my profession damaged,” Roka said. “I wanted to give my children a better future.”

Politics also pushed Annie E. Strickler to California, but it was the domestic version. After Strickler turned 30 a few months ago, she persuaded her boss in Washington, D.C., to let her move her job to San Francisco.

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The Sierra Club’s deputy press secretary said she loves D.C., but her five years there encompassed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the anthrax scares, the snipers who terrorized the region and an administration “that doesn’t reflect my values.”

And so one of the most Democratic states gained yet another Democrat. “My job is the same,” said Strickler, “but it’s so much easier here.”

The California dream of an easier life -- ample opportunity with a backdrop of natural beauty and a caressing climate -- has been artfully packaged since the waning days of the Gold Rush, first by railroad companies, later by Hollywood.

Ever since the dream was born, it has produced pain along with pleasure. Some ‘49ers struck it rich; others went home, poor and broken. Disappointment and failure are persistent California themes.

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Maria Sementsiv, 20 and hopeful, arrived in Los Angeles from Ukraine earlier this month for her second summer in the Golden State. Her visa expires in October, but she’d like to stay. She thinks.

“Those things which I saw on the television, or in books, it was a little different than I thought,” she recalled. “It’s not all an ideal life, nice houses, rich people. There were some problems for me at first.”

For some newcomers, the dream crumbles on arrival. Eric Field, 42, traded New York for Fresno last fall because he fell in love, but the relationship rapidly fizzled.

For the moment the furniture refinisher is staying put, but partly that’s because he can’t afford to go back. And although he has good clients, a “tremendous landlord,” a supportive church and good friends, he sees California’s darker side, where “people would come out for paradise, and it would elude them.”

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Will the disappointed dreamers be better off elsewhere? Will California be better without them?

Various experts project that the population will rise from 37 million to 48 million by 2030. As a result, the state will require a lot more water, electricity, houses and space on the freeways. California has four of the 10 fastest-growing big cities in America, according to Census Bureau statistics released last week -- more than any other state.

Experts have been cautioning that California has to stop growing ever since the state was home to only Native American tribes, Spanish missionaries and a few trappers.

“Under no contingency does the natural face of Upper California appear susceptible of supporting a very large population,” wrote Lt. Henry Augustus Wise of the U.S. Navy.

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That was 1849, and the warnings have continued ever since. California historian Philip Fradkin remembers moving here in 1960 from New Jersey: “People were saying, ‘We’re going to be swamped.’ ”

Forty-six years and 21 million new arrivals later, Fradkin has joined the chorus. “At some point, I have no doubt we’re going to be swamped.” Soon, he thinks, the California dream will finally, officially, irrevocably turn to nightmare for immigrants and residents alike.

We’re not there yet. California is still a powerful draw -- at least for people like Elizabeth Winter.

She’s a Massachusetts native who graduated from Wesleyan University in Connecticut. On May 15, her 23rd birthday, she arrived in San Francisco.

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Home will be an apartment shared with three college friends. A dozen other Wesleyan pals are spread around the state. “It’s like a ‘Westward Ho’ thing,” Winter joked.

She’s not sure she’ll stay. She knows she’ll miss the changing seasons on the East Coast, and her parents.

“But sometimes,” she said, “you fall in love with a place.”


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