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THINKING OUT LOUD / IMMIGRATION

Immigrants Get Ordinary in Old Age

June 12, 2005|John Pitkin and Dowell Myers | John Pitkin and Dowell Myers conduct the California Demographic Futures project at USC as senior research associate and professor of policy, planning and development, respectively.

For decades, California's immigrant communities have been thought of as young, rootless and poor. This image held for good reason, because it was largely accurate. But over the last decade or so, the demographic mix has shifted as earlier migrants settled down, raised families and climbed the economic ladder. Their children grew up and moved into productive roles.

The resulting shift has been remarkable, even if so quiet that it has escaped notice by many voters and state leaders. Perhaps that explains why too many public policies remain based on a vision of immigrants more appropriate to 1985 than 2005.

It is time to revise the conventional wisdom. Our research project, California Demographic Futures, has examined data trends that tell a new story about the immigrants and children of immigrants who live in California. Taken together, this broader immigrant community now numbers 17 million.

Tracking census data to 1980, we found that as immigrants live here longer they advance economically and forge stronger ties with American society. When we examined the Latino population that moved to California before 1980 and remained here, we found that the poverty rate among the group fell from 28% in 1980 to 17% today. Even more telling is the rise in home ownership. Fifteen percent of that group owned homes as young adults in 1980. Today, in middle age, 55% do so. This group also greatly increased its voter participation, use of English and membership in healthcare plans.

These trends have taken root at a time when the average flows of new migrants to California, including illegal immigrants, slowed from a peak of almost 450,000 a year in the early 1990s to under 350,000 today.

Entire immigrant communities have started to advance. Thanks to recent gains, the percentage of all Latinos with incomes below the poverty level is now less than it was in 1990.

A telling trend is in the percentage of Latinos in their early 20s who have high school diplomas. That figure has been rising since 1990 and, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, 80% of U.S.-born children of Latino immigrants have graduated from high school or passed a high school equivalency exam. That is more than double the rate for their parents' generation.

Our projections show that by 2030, the number of middle-aged immigrants will have grown to 4.9 million, while more than 6.3 million of their U.S.-born children -- the second generation -- will have reached adulthood. Immigrants and their children will account for more than 90% of the growth in the working-age population over the next two decades, according to our projections. Indeed, the retirement of the large baby boom generation places special weight on the children of immigrants as replacements.

It's none too soon for voters and state officials to appreciate the significance of these changes. Immigrants should no longer be perceived as perpetual dependents, so-called tax-eaters. The state's fiscal strategy of resisting tax increases and restricting functions that serve immigrants and their families is a recipe for holding our entire state back.

With help, immigrants and their children can progress more rapidly, becoming middle-class taxpayers, consumers and skilled workers. Education, starting from preschool, is crucial. The state needs to ensure that its community college system, in particular, is up to the challenge.

Pessimism and out-of-date perceptions are now the enemy. If we continue to choose policies that result in less progress for immigrants, we will be selling short our entire state -- immigrants, their children and everybody else.

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