Toward a Strategic Plan for Immigrant Integration in the Golden State > USC Equity Research Institute (ERI) > USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

By Carolina Otero, PhD student, USC Sociology and Fernando Moreno, PhD student, USC Sociology

On April 26, 2022, USC’s Equity Research Institute hosted a panel of community leaders, policy makers and academics to consider the short-term and long-term policies needed to move California into an immigrant-friendly state. The panel was moderated by Dr. Manuel Pastor of the USC Equity Research Institute. The panel was also preceded by a presentation on recent ERI data analyzes of California’s immigrant communities by USC Equity Research Institute Civil Society and Social Change Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Thai V . The.

At its most fundamental level, immigrant inclusion means reimagining what it means to belong socially, civically, and economically in California, regardless of legal status. Although the state has come a long way from its xenophobic past – most recently culminating in the Prop-187 era – the situation for immigrants in the region is still far from where it should be. The California for All event showed that California is where the future is unfolding. State talk often evokes feelings about green technologies, the “future of work,” and leading the world toward a better future with a long-term strategic plan to fight climate change. However, even though California is home to the largest proportion of immigrants and refugees in the United States, no such plan for broader immigrant inclusion exists.

Although Californians’ attitudes are overwhelmingly immigrant-friendly, the on-the-ground and day-to-day experiences of immigrants remain precarious. As panelist Cynthia Buiza, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center (CIPC), said, “Human needs do not differ between an immigrant and a native Californian.” Despite this, data shows that immigrants, and in particular undocumented immigrants, suffer the most from income inequality. The median incomes of immigrant men ($20.20) and women ($19.09) are lower than those of their US-born counterparts ($28.17 and $24.28, respectively); the median hourly wage for undocumented workers is just $13.11. That’s well below the salaries recommended by MIT’s Living Wage Calculator.

When looking at working poverty among full-time workers, the greatest disparity between nativity and immigration status is among undocumented full-time workers, nearly 44% of whom have household incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level. For lawful permanent residents, the share is 20.4%; 11.9% for naturalized citizens; 9.0% for US-born workers; and 13.7% for all Californians. Similar patterns of disadvantage and exclusion are reflected in the burden of rent, language isolation, digital divide and lack of health insurance coverage among these groups.

Like those “traditionally” considered immigrants, refugee communities continue to face many socio-economic barriers. For example, as Ramla Sahid, Executive Director of the Partnership for Advancement of New Americans (PANA) pointed out, even if refugees have legal status, it does not mean that they have access to education, housing or quality jobs. Since fiscal 2002, California has resettled the most refugees of any other state. Yet in recent years, Texas and Washington have surpassed California’s numbers. Additionally, in a 2021 list of 19 cities “deemed suitable” by the State Department, none were in California. It is a reminder of the fact that living in the state of California is also increasingly out of reach for refugees.

It is common to generalize immigrant experiences, but as the panelists expressed, immigrant experience intersects with other social markers and that is what “Two Californias” conveys. For example, California is the state with the highest share of H1-B visa holders at 22.4%, many of whom are concentrated in the high-tech sector, and also has the highest share of undocumented immigrants. All immigrants contribute significantly to California’s growth and success, but The State of Immigrants highlights not only a telling history of immigrant experiences, but also the particularly precarious economic and legal context of undocumented immigrants. Second, and as our director pointed out, it is telling that people, including immigrants, are willing to move to Texas and other states despite openly harmful and racist rhetoric directed against immigrants and black people and the Browns.

Similar to California’s population as a whole, the state’s share of immigrants has slowed and declined from more than a decade ago. The Public Policy Institute of California finds that low-income and middle-income adults are driving these numbers, while high-income adults are moving to the Golden State. Where are Californians moving? Data suggests they are moving to neighboring states, places like Texas, Nevada, Arizona, Washington and Oregon. Taken together, what does this mean for California and immigrants in general? First, our data shows that immigrants generally have lower median wages ($19.43), especially undocumented workers, than those born in the United States or the population as a whole. They are overrepresented in essential and high-risk COVID-19 occupations, are concentrated in the physically intensive workforce, and are found in low-income industries and occupations.

For too long, California’s future has overlooked the voice and agency of its immigrant residents. In the most egregious case of electoral politics, the state has simply denied the right to representation to thousands of immigrants because of their legal status. While more than two-thirds of undocumented Californians have been here for more than a decade, not giving them a voice in the political process leaves them invisible in planning for the future. Although immigrants in the state have been involved politically through grassroots organizations and advocacy, centering immigrant voices also means thinking about ways to integrate people who are currently being denied entry. right to vote, among other things.

California must first come together through enhanced collaborations and frequent conversations that center the diversity of voices and experiences of immigrant communities. Logistically, advancing the work of immigrant inclusion must encompass public and private partnerships, multiple institutions and locations. As Masih Fouladi, deputy executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-LA) pointed out, collaborations and conversations between government officials, community organizers, academics and philanthropists are needed to create a narrative and currency systems.

The reality is that California has always been an immigrant state and immigration will always be part of our future. Building a California for all requires rethinking how political power is deployed and finding new ways to include everyone in that planning, regardless of immigration status. Building for the future also involves anticipating the struggle that will be required to achieve it and developing strategies to avoid regressing to the xenophobic past of the state. Policy makers must show real support for the immigrant community by adopting an immigration lens on all laws and policies to ensure that access to opportunities is not dependent on where one was born.


Read the full report and watch the event video on Youtube!

Message from Carolina Otero, PhD student, USC Sociology and Fernando Moreno, PhD student, USC Sociology

About Michael G. Walter

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