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Census study finds a greater blend

State's immigrants are becoming more assimilated. Number of English speakers also rises, survey says.

September 23, 2008|Teresa Watanabe and Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writers

California's immigrants are more assimilated, with greater proportions reporting last year that they became U.S. citizens and the majority of Spanish speakers now saying they speak English very well, a sharp rise from 2000, according to U.S. census data released today.

Data from the bureau's 2007 American Community Survey showed that California continued to diversify, with whites declining to 42.5% and Latinos, Asians and blacks increasing to 54.4% of the state's population. The foreign-born population inched upward and now make up more than one-fourth of residents in the state and one-third in Los Angeles County.

But bucking perceptions that high levels of immigration are jeopardizing national cohesion, the data showed that today's immigrants, like those before them, are embracing an American identity. In Los Angeles County, for instance, the proportion of native Spanish speakers fluent in English increased to 51.4% in 2007 from 44.6% in 2000. The share of naturalized citizens among the foreign-born grew to 43.3% from 38% over that time.

"Every major study shows that immigrants from whatever country are integrating into our society at the same level and degree as prior immigrants," said Antonia Hernandez, president of the Los Angeles-based California Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that recently launched an initiative to help immigrants adapt here.

"Notwithstanding the rhetoric of anti-immigrant groups," Hernandez said, "immigrants are deeply embedded in the social and economic fabric of Southern California and particularly Los Angeles."

The survey found other changes in the statewide population between 2000 and 2007:

* Latinos increased to 36.2% from 32.4%.

* Asians increased to 12.2% from 10.8%.

* Whites declined to 42.5% from 46.6%.

* Blacks declined to 6% from 6.3%.

The changing nature of California immigrants is one major factor behind the increased assimilation, according to policy experts. There are fewer new immigrants here, as higher living costs have driven more of them to other states; those who remain have been here longer, presumably speak better English and have had time to qualify for U.S. citizenship, according to Michael Fix, vice president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

An institute study of Los Angeles immigrants this year found that the proportion who arrived in the last decade has sharply declined since the 1990s and constituted 18% of all foreign-born residents in 2006. In contrast, 28% of immigrants were newcomers during the 1990s and 1980s, Fix said.

"It seems to me that increases in the number of naturalized immigrants and those who are fluent in English send a strong signal that historic patterns of integration are continuing," he said. "These trends certainly do not support fears that immigration is eroding the nation's social cohesion."

Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., said that declining numbers of illegal immigrants could be another reason to explain the higher levels of English fluency and citizenship. His center estimates that 1 million illegal immigrants, or nearly 10% of the total, left the country between August 2007 and May 2008 amid a declining economy and heightened enforcement against illegal immigration.

Because illegal immigrants have lower rates of education and income than legal ones, he said, their departure may have helped boost the proportion of Americanized immigrants.

In addition, more immigrants are benefiting from a major push to help them adjust to their new homeland.

The California Community Foundation, for instance, has commissioned two major studies on the topic and is kicking off an initiative to expand access to English-language classes, help professional immigrants gain U.S. certification for their skills and promote immigrant parental involvement in their children's education, Hernandez said.

At the federal level, the Bush administration launched a massive assimilation campaign in 2006 and is expanding it this year -- including a free, web-based English class to immigrants on its new site, www.WelcometoUSA.gov.

Meanwhile, the process of becoming American proceeds apace.

On Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, along a boulevard of shops touting Spanish-language signs and Latin American religious icons, immigrants study English and U.S. civics.

Take Luis Perez, 54, a Mexico native who recently retired as a travel agent. He has spent the last 19 of his 20 years in the United States getting by with little English as a legal resident. But as his vision is fading, he's hoping to apply for naturalization this year.

To prepare, Perez spends much of his time poring over a handout of 96 citizenship test questions that he keeps in his backpack. In an impromptu quiz, Perez nailed the answers.

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