The pace of foreign immigration to California has finally slowed after an extraordinary three-decade surge and, as a result, poverty among immigrants is on the decline, according to a USC study to be released today.
The key change is a significant drop in the proportion of new arrivals and the sharp growth of a more stable immigrant population consisting of those who have lived in the state for 10 years or more, the study said. Immigrants tend to do better economically the longer they are here.
The findings, which include projections to the year 2020, paint a complex portrait of California immigration, which many critics have portrayed as an ever-swelling influx of impoverished newcomers burdening public services and aggravating social tensions.
The proportion of foreign-born in California's population jumped 153% during the 1970s and '80s, until immigrants made up slightly more than one in five Californians in 1990. But that proportion rose only 12% during the '90s and will increase by only 8% during the next 20 years, the study said.
The poverty rate among foreign-born fell from 19.8% in 1990 to 18.2% last year and will fall to 16.9% by 2010, the study predicted.
"Immigration to California has turned the corner," said Dowell Myers, a USC demographer and urban planner who was a coauthor of the report and has worked on several other studies about immigrants. "The numbers are stabilizing and the immigrant population is enjoying increased prosperity."
Immigrants, who made up 24.4% of Californians in 2000, will grow to only 26.4% by 2020, the study said. The authors attribute the slowdown in growth to higher immigrant mortality as that population ages, more native births and better job opportunities for newer immigrants in states with less competition.
The study differs from many population projections by focusing on immigrants, rather than racial or ethnic groupings. It based its conclusions on population statistics and anticipates results of the 2000 Census that will not be available for a year or more. The study assumed that national immigration levels will continue at about 1 million a year.
Representatives of two leading groups favoring reduction in immigration levels challenged the notion that the proportion of immigrants is significantly slowing.
"If I was a California policymaker, thinking about scarcity of water and rolling blackouts, I would have reason for concern about the huge projected growth that California is about to take because of immigration," said David Ray, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
The study said poverty among California's foreign-born is declining in large part because of "the growing dominance of more settled immigrants," a prosperity that the study said transcends the economic boom of the 1990s.
California immigrants are increasingly long-term, deep-rooted residents, including many steadily employed homeowners. New arrivals--those here 10 years or less, who often scramble from one low-wage job to another--made up 8.3% of all Californians in 2000, a sharp drop from 1990, when they made up 11.1%, the study said.
By 1990, according to census data, about half of all California's immigrants (49.1%) had lived here for 10 years or more. The USC study projected that percentage will increase steeply, to two-thirds (66%) in 2000, almost three-quarters (73.5%) in 2010 and to 76.9% in 2020.
In two decades, more than half (55.3%) of California's immigrants will have resided here for 20 years or more, the study projected--more than double the comparable figure in 1990.
This trend inevitably leads to prosperity, said John Pitkin, a coauthor of the report and the president of Analysis and Forecasting, a private consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass. "Over time, immigrants accumulate wealth and capital," he said. "This allows many of them to get out of poverty."
California remains by far the most popular destination for immigrants, providing a home to almost one-third of the nation's foreign settlers. Its proportion of foreign-born is more than double the national rate of 10%. Immigrants tend to be poorer, less educated, more likely to use welfare and lack health insurance than the native-born, studies have shown.
The USC study challenges none of that. Yet, confirming anecdotal suspicions of many experts, it asserted that California is no longer the magnet it once was.
The rate of growth in the foreign-born population of many smaller states far outstripped California during the 1990s. Immigrant populations in Nevada, Colorado and North Carolina almost doubled, while California's grew by only 36%, according to census estimates.
In Los Angeles County, with its huge immigrant population, the foreign-born are expected to stabilize at about 40% of all residents in the next 20 years, close to the current level, the study states.
The racial and ethnic breakdowns of immigrants in California and Los Angeles are expected to remain similar to the current numbers. Immigrants from Latin America, mostly Mexico, are projected to grow from 53% of the total in 1990 to 57% in 2020. Asians will increase slightly, to 27.9%, the study said. White immigrants, mostly from Europe and the Middle East, are projected to drop from 19% of the total in 1990 to 14% in 2020.
Steven A. Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based group that seeks reduced levels of immigration, said positive changes found by the study were not large enough to be significant.
"It's certainly true that immigrants are doing better, but the gap among them and natives remains enormous," he said.
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