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A Matter of Help, Not Rights

May 21, 2000|Gregory Rodriguez | Gregory Rodriguez, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a Los Angeles-based fellow at the New America Foundation

Although Los Angeles has always advertised itself as a place of new beginnings for migrants, it has never properly prided itself on being an immigrant city. One reason is that, until the 1960s, most new arrivals were native-born Americans from the Midwest, East and South. Neither rich nor poor, most were old-stock, middle-class Americans drawn to Southern California's image as a sun-drenched, suburban paradise.

But since the 1970s, an enormous influx of international migrants has transformed the city into the single largest recipient of immigrants in the nation. With roughly 40% of its residents foreign-born, L.A. is today as heavily immigrant as was Chicago in 1890 and New York City in 1910.

Nonetheless, Los Angeles has yet to fully free itself of its self-image as a Mediterranean-like leisure environment. To be sure, over the past 20 years, some critics have turned this escapist mythology on its head, portraying L.A. as a hellish and segregated "capital of the Third World." But neither caricature serves the city and its citizens well.

Metropolitan Los Angeles must first re-envision itself as a melting-pot immigrant city if its institutions are ever going to successfully incorporate the millions of newcomers, 44% of whom are from Mexico, who now call it home.

Before the era of unemployment insurance and Social Security, struggling immigrants regularly sought out nongovernmental institutions for help in their new environment. Because city, county and state governments provided only minimal assistance before the New Deal, ethnic groups tended to care for their own. Immigrant groups set up agencies offering everything from cemetery plots, hospitals, dispensaries, orphanages and day nurseries, to old people's homes, employment services, insurance plans and even relief benefits.

Churches also recognized that religious pastoring had to involve material as well as spiritual salvation. In addition to charity, the Catholic Church's most important contribution to immigrant upward mobility was its parochial school system. Nurturing cultural continuity between the old and new worlds, ethnic parishes provided immigrants with a comforting way station in their new communities.

Ironically, in a time of bigger government, the wider community may forget that it can do more to help newly arrived, needy immigrants. L.A.'s labor unions are a good example of an institution that was fiercely anti-immigrant a generation ago but has since reoriented itself toward improving the lot of low-wage workers, most of whom are foreign-born. Unfortunately, the region's Catholic and ethnic-Mexican social infrastructures have not responded as successfully.

One reason is that immigrant issues are considered synonymous with minority rights. In Los Angeles, the major Latino organizations are more concerned with rights and representation than with constituent services. This orientation can be traced to the 1960s, when the country's largest philanthropic foundations, most notably the Ford Foundation, abandoned their traditional strategy of building lasting institutions in favor of funding organizations committed to challenging existing ones. This shift in direction, in part, reflected smaller numbers of new immigrants. Philanthropy focused on native-born ethnic Americans, and while undeniably valid, the new strategy eventually undermined the historically successful notion that immigrants are best helped by facilitating their assimilation into U.S. society.

The Ford Foundation was instrumental in the establishment of two of L.A.'s most celebrated Latino organizations: the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Southwest Voter Registration Project. While both organizations perform needed work, there is still a conspicuous absence of a comparable privately funded constituency-based organization in the city. Sure, there are plenty of ethnically oriented social-service outlets offering AIDS testing, gang-prevention programs, mental-health therapy and so on. But they do not constitute a network of providers. Instead, they are, at best, a patchwork of independent operators heavily reliant on public funds and guided by government priorities.

L.A.'s decentralized geography makes it difficult to implement a coherent approach to any social problem, yet it doesn't explain away the fact that there is not one major Mexican American organization designed to raise money for and assist newcomers in their adjustment to life in Los Angeles. Nor does geography explain the absence of a network of organizations that help immigrants manage the demands of daily life like opening a bank account, improving language skills, dealing with bureaucracies and even securing credit.

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