Change we can live with

Here's the conventional wisdom: Americans scapegoat immigrants during bad economic times. They fear for their own well-being and turn on those they think are competing with them unfairly for jobs, for help, for a place at the table. But last week's L.A. Times/USC poll of likely California voters puts a giant dent in that political trope: 48% said they thought immigrants were a benefit to the state, and 59% were in favor of allowing illegal immigrants who have lived or worked in the United States for at least two years to remain here.

If bad economic times were the main thing driving attitudes toward immigrants, those results would be pretty much impossible. Let's face it, the times in California can't get much worse. Unemployment is at 12.4%. In September, the nation lost a net 95,000 payroll jobs, and California accounted for 63,600 of them.

Given these dismal numbers, why aren't Californians heaping blame on immigrants in general and illegal immigrants in particular? After all, in the recession of the early 1990s, California voters were perfectly willing to blame illegal immigrants for virtually all the state's woes. According to a Texas Tech University study, Californians back then favored more restrictive immigration policies than did other Americans.

What explains the difference between then and now?

First, the flow of illegal immigrants entering California has declined significantly (from 2000 to 2006, the illegal immigrant population here grew at less than one-third the rate of the rest of the nation). And the immigrants who are here tend to be more established; they've become locals. The electorate is also more heavily Latino now, and probably less reflexively negative about immigrants from Latin America.

But the most important explanation is that what mostly fueled anti-immigrant sentiment in the 1990s is what fuels it now: not economic fear but another deep-seated fear, that of newcomers and the long-term cultural change they may bring. That unease was rampant — and stoked by exaggerated immigrant-bashing — in the 1990s in California, but in 2010, hard times or not, it has died down.

In 1994, when the state was debating Proposition 187 (the law targeting illegal immigrants that the courts overturned), newspapers routinely published stories about the state's impending demographic shift: Whites were headed toward minority status. The debate was about culture as much as illegal immigration, and the not-so-subtle implication was that everything about life here would change.

But over time, we learned everything didn't change. Californians survived the much-hyped demographic shift, and we're beginning to get used to our new reality. In other words, whites got to know their new neighbors. And, despite real tensions caused by illegal immigration, familiarity didn't breed contempt.

How close have we become? As far back as 2000, according to census data, California Anglos had a 35.7% chance of "exposure" to minorities, compared to only 17.4% for Anglos nationwide. Similarly, racial and ethnic intermarriage rates here have long been among the nation's highest, and in 2006, California ranked third in the level of diversity of its classrooms.

This is not to suggest that diversity teaches us to love our neighbors, let alone illegal immigration. But it makes sense that familiarity with newcomers will affect the political response toward them, whether they enter the U.S. legally or illegally.

Anti-immigrant activists argue that race has nothing to do with their view of immigrants. They say the issue is crime, or taxpayer costs — anything but a visceral dislike of newcomers and new paradigms. But California's recent history doesn't support that contention. In the 1990s, California's anti-immigrant frenzy was fueled mostly by anxiety over a changing racial/ethnic landscape. It's not unlikely that the anti-immigrant backlash in other parts of the nation is driven by the same thing.

The Times/USC poll shows that when it comes to immigrant-bashing, we've been there, done that. And now, even in hard times, we're not blaming immigrants for the problems we face. For all our political and economic woes, it's good to know we're still ahead of the curve on a positive social trend. How long before the rest of the country catches on?

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