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The brown and the gray

February 04, 2007|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ | GREGORY RODRIGUEZ is an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

CALIFORNIA is losing market share -- as a destination for immigrants. As the rest of the country experiences an explosion of immigration (especially of the illegal variety) that has the national percentage of foreign-born residents soaring, the immigration increase in the Golden State is in the rearview mirror. Since 1990, California has seen a decline in the number of new immigrant arrivals. In the 1990s alone, that number declined by almost 10%, and the decrease in Los Angeles County was 30%.

From 1970 to 1990, our foreign-born population doubled in size each decade. That meant that for nearly a generation, roughly half of California's immigrants were recent arrivals still struggling to find their way in an unfamiliar land. But the slowdown in the number of new immigrants has changed all that, with serious implications for our state's future.

So says USC's Dowell Myers, one of the city's preeminent demographers. In an upcoming book titled "Immigrants and Boomers," Myers argues for the creation of an intergenerational compact (paying for better schools, for starters) that would encourage the aging Anglo population to invest in younger, heavily Latino generations -- not out of charity but out of mutual self-interest. After all, aging baby boomers will not only need a healthy tax base to support their government entitlements, they will require a pool of high-earners who can one day purchase their homes.

No, the argument is not entirely new. In his groundbreaking 1988 book, "The Burden of Support," UCLA's David E. Hayes-Bautista was the first to tie together the country's two most far-reaching demographic trends -- the graying and the browning. But what Myers has on his side are hindsight and the data to argue persuasively that immigrant families are indeed a good investment.

Myers has identified three stages of immigration -- early, middle and mature -- and California is at the end of the second. While the early phase saw massive growth, the second was a leveling off. In the third, which Myers says should begin about 2010, the number of new arrivals is expected to gradually decline for the foreseeable future.

What this means is that the foreign-born population has -- and will continue to -- become more settled. California's fastest-growing group of immigrants is those who have lived in California for more than 20 years. By 2030, the majority of all foreign-born are expected to have lived in the U.S. for at least that long.

And unlike new arrivals, this group is much less likely to live in poverty and more likely to speak English, own homes and be citizens. Indeed, after reviewing mounds of data, Myers concludes that the "degree of Latino immigrant progress is so substantial that it is likely to be surprising."

But his point is not that everything is turning up roses. He sees crises brewing on the horizon, many of them stemming from the aging of baby boomers. As they enter retirement, California may not have a sufficiently educated labor force to replace them, and the state could lose high-quality jobs, eroding the tax base. The diminished earning capacity of the future workforce also could engender an epic meltdown of real estate values.

Myers argues that only by elevating the educational attainment of the workforce -- the bulk of which is expected to be Latino -- can crisis be averted. But that will require more taxes and public investment. Reducing the high school dropout rate, expanding the seating capacity at community colleges and building new four-year colleges will all cost money.

Because he knows voters -- nearly two-thirds of whom are still Anglo -- don't like throwing money at lost causes and are turned off by the fact that so many foreign workers who will be needed in the future arrived here illegally, Myers says that they need to know how much progress immigrants have already made. In fact, he contends that the pessimism of the aging Anglo electorate is one of the biggest obstacles to preparing for the future. "Immigrants have shown a lot more potential than we thought," he said, "but voters haven't responded yet with a strong vote of confidence."

Generations are often at odds, but California's generational gap is confounded by the ethnic differences between old and young. Despite their diminishing percentage of the population, Anglos are projected to make up the majority of the electorate for nearly another quarter of a century. If they're ever going to choose to sufficiently invest in the younger generation, they will have to see that it's in their own interest. That's where the intergenerational understanding comes in.

Most of the national debate about immigration focuses on the border, but in California we should be turning our attention to the immigrants and their families who have already put down roots. Investing in them is our best hope to avert the skilled-workforce crisis that looms.

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