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Fear and Reality in the Los Angeles Melting Pot

November 05, 1989|JOEL KOTKIN | Joel Kotkin is a contributing editor of this magazine.

ON A WARM afternoon in Long Beach, at Pei Lin, a Cambodian restaurant on Anaheim Street, In dochinese teen-agers, dressed like Valley girls, clutch their schoolbooks and cluster around the the big-screen Mitsubishi in the corner, lip-synching along with MTV. Across the room, middle-aged refugees stare blankly as they drink their tea.

Marc Wilder, an urban planner and a former Long Beach City Council member, sits at one of the tables, eating a fish and rice lunch and considering the impact of immigration on Southern California.

"Anything will be possible here in the future," he says. "These people who are coming here can succeed or they can fail. They can be our hope or our downfall."

Immigration has become the irresistible force in the life of Southern California. In 1970, only 11% of the Los Angeles area population was foreign-born; a decade later, 22% was foreign-born, and predictions by the Southern California Assn. of Governments puts the figure at close to a third by the turn of the century. Last year, the Immigration and Naturalization Service issued 122,268 new green cards in the seven-county Southern California region. The immigrants came from Mexico and El Salvador and China and Vietnam and Ireland, some 30 countries in all, with a majority fitting under the headings Latino and Asian. Next year, 40% of Southern California's population, by birth or ancestry, will be either Latino or Asian. In another 20 years, according to projections from SCAG, those groups will make up an absolute majority in the region.

Already, in the Mid-Wilshire district, in Monterey Park, in Orange County's Westminster or along Anaheim Street in Long Beach, a stranger to Southern California would think the region's predominant language was Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese or Cambodian. And in the Los Angeles Basin, in a huge arc stretching from San Fernando to Santa Ana, Latinos, a majority of them immigrants, form the second-largest concentration of Spanish speakers in North America (the first is Mexico City).

For Marc Wilder, this is a geography of hope--a unique opportunity to build a bracing, multiracial, multicultural urban civilization. "We are going to be different than anywhere," he says, "and we are going to do things differently because a Cambodian, a Hispanic and a Jew share the same space. . . . We will see new kinds of institutions made by new kinds of people."

Wilder's hopeful vision of a future built on immigration is evidently not shared by most Southern Californians. A Los Angeles Times Poll conducted in January found that 57% of the residents polled agreed that there are "too many" immigrants here. The result echoed a 1986 poll in Los Angeles and Orange counties that found 55% agreement with the statement "immigration is a change for the worse." And throughout the region, there are widespread concerns that massive immigration is threatening our economic future, our social cohesion and our quality of life.

The anti-immigration mood shows up in blatant ways. Last year, for instance, then-Monterey Park Mayor Barry Hatch dispatched a letter--on city stationery--to the leading presidential candidates calling the immigrants "a horde of invaders," linking undocumented foreigners with "drug runners, terrorists and criminals" and suggesting a five-year ban on all immigration.

This year, in Westminster, the commercial hub for Orange County's estimated 85,000 Vietnamese, vandals have attacked at least eight signs that direct motorists to the "Little Saigon" shopping district. In April, the City Council there rejected a request for a parade of Vietnamese veterans groups honoring those who died fighting alongside American soldiers in the Vietnam War.

"It's my opinion that you're all Americans and you'd better be Americans. If you want to be Vietnamese, go back to South Vietnam," City Councilman Frank Fry told the organizers of the South Vietnam Armed Forces Day. "That may be unfair," he added, "but that's my opinion, and I'm sure that it is the opinion of a lot of people around here."

The Federation for American Immigration Reform, an anti-immigration lobby, links newcomers to such issues as crowded freeways, soaring housing costs and overcrowded schools. "The immigrants are resented strongly because of their impact on livability," says Los Angeles City Councilman Ernani Bernardi, a member of FAIR's national board of advisers. "We just can't accommodate the population. They can't all come here."

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