California has long been the ultimate melting pot, with the majority of its population coming from outside the state.
Dust Bowl emigres, Asian railroad workers, high-tech entrepreneurs, Mexican laborers and war refugees from around the globe flocked to California. The majority migrant population filled the state’s myriad labor needs, challenged the schools with a cacophony of new languages and roiled its politics with immigration debates.
But, in a dramatic demographic shift, California’s narrative as the nation’s quintessential immigrant state is giving way to a new reality.
For the first time since the 19th century Gold Rush, California-born residents now make up the majority statewide and in most counties, according to a USC study released Wednesday. And experts predict even Los Angeles -- long a mecca for new immigrants -- will become majority California-born by the time the 2010 census is completed.
“Home-grown Californians are the anchor of our economic future,” said Dowell Myers, a USC urban planning and demography professor who coauthored the study. “But people are living in the past. They still think we are fighting off hordes of migrants.”
The study showed that California’s share of foreign-born residents grew from 15.1% in 1980 to a peak of 27.4% in 2007. This segment is estimated to decline to 26.6% in 2010.
Los Angeles County shows parallel trends, with foreign-born residents growing from 22.1% of the population in 1980 to 36.2% in 2006. That figure is expected to dip to 35% in 2010.
Meanwhile, the native Californian share of the population is projected to increase from 45.5% in 1980 to 54% in 2010 statewide. In Los Angeles, the homegrown share is expected to rise from 40.8% to 49.4% over the same period.
Myers said the recession and stricter immigration enforcement were probably two key factors driving down California’s foreign-born population, as fewer migrants are coming and more are leaving because they can’t find jobs. But even when the economy recovers, he said he expects the trend to continue because the state’s high housing costs and dramatically lower birthrates in Mexico will continue to suppress migration to California.
A growing homegrown population could be good news for the state, several analysts said. Latino children of immigrants, for instance, complete more years of schooling, speak better English and earn more income than their parents, according to several studies.
California-born residents are also more loyal to the state -- three times more likely to stay here than their migrant counterparts, Myers said. That, he said, will prove a boon when labor shortages develop, as are expected when baby boomers begin to retire.
But investments in education will be even more critical because the state may no longer be able to import the skilled workforce it needs, Myers said. Migrants also have higher rates of new business start-ups than the general public -- having launched everything from taco restaurants to high-tech giants such as EBay and Yahoo.
“Immigrants are risk-takers,” he said. “We might become a little more stodgy and stable.”
Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the slowdown in migrants to California was not surprising. The Los Angeles area alone has shed a net 450,000 jobs since 2007, and the state has lost 1.5 million, he said.
With fewer migrants, however, homegrown workers could benefit. Toebben said the smaller pool of potential job candidates might compel employers to eliminate pay cuts and furloughs made during the recession -- as 60% of Southern California firms did, he said.
In places like L.A.'s Westlake district, a traditional first stop for immigrants, the trend is apparent.
Juan Vargas, 45, sat in a booth of his nearly empty Mi Querido Pulgarcito restaurant on Alvarado Street.
It was hard to tell whether the decline in business was caused by the sour economy or fewer immigrants around, he said.
“Business is down because of the economy. People are spending less. But there’s also fewer immigrants,” said the Guatemalan immigrant, who came to the U.S. in 1988. “The commentaries I hear are things like, ‘I’ll wait a month, and if I can’t find work, I’m going to my country, or to another state.’
“Here, people telephone each other and ask how the situation is where they are,” he added. “Perhaps they hear the situation is better somewhere else and off they go to some other state.”
Whether migrants should stay or leave California is a question that reaches even the palm and card reader at the El Indio Amazonico botanical shop on Alvarado Street.
Patrons usually come in with common questions about love or money. But since the economy wobbled, they also come to ask whether their future is elsewhere -- perhaps far from California.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Should I go back to my country, to Mexico or Guatemala or El Salvador,’ ” said Juliana Contreras, 45. “People ask, ‘Should I go or should I stay?’ I usually tell them if it’s bad here, it’s worse in their countries.”
Still, the streets teem less than before. Is that because fewer people are going out and spending money, or because immigrants have left?
“Before the economic crisis, there was a lot more money and a lot more people,” she said. “A lot of people left the state. Few that I know left the country.”
In front of a tamale place near the corner of 7th and Alvarado streets, Cesar Diaz, 29, clutched a can of Red Bull on his day off. The construction worker from Mexico City said many of his relatives and friends left California after the economy reeled.
“A lot of them have gone to other states -- Utah, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Nevada,” Diaz said. “I went to Pennsylvania where I have an uncle but I hated the weather. I came back.”
Diaz said he has lived in L.A. for 11 years and no longer thinks of leaving. Gradually, work has picked up, he said.
“This is my home. My home is California,” he said. “The people I know who left, I don’t think they’ll come back here to live. Where they went is their home now. They’re doing well and they found fixed jobs.”