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  • Immigration in California:Conflict, Confluence, and Controversy
  • Larry N. Gerston (bio)

Some words spark instant debate and controversy. In the United States, abortion, gun control, and gay marriage are among the terms that invite argument almost immediately upon utterance. And so it is with immigration, a subject that provides little middle ground for those with any interest. The late Barbara Jordan, chair of the US Commission on Immigration Reform, spoke for the "admissionists," those who support open borders, when she wrote that "the United States has been and should continue to be a nation of immigrants. A well-regulated system of legal immigration is in our national interest."1 "Restrictionists," those who would seek to close borders, are just as adamant in criticizing immigration. According to one recent account, immigration causes problems for poor children, lower-skilled workers, residents of declining urban communities, African Americans, unskilled immigrants, and well-paid scientists and engineers. As such, this viewpoint holds, immigration should be severely limited.2 Clearly, immigration is a highly charged topic in the United States. But nowhere is the immigration issue of greater importance than in California, because no state has been as affected by the phenomenon.

With an economy equal to that of the sixth largest nation in the world and a population containing one out of every eight Americans, California looms as the logical test bed for most controversial areas of public policy. [End Page 57] The continued flow of immigrants into California and the state's management of immigration-related issues present challenges and opportunities that, no doubt, will reach other states and the nation in the coming years. Such circumstances also will undoubtedly present lessons for any nation that encounters the dynamics of a changing population stemming from foreign migration.

Because immigration changes the status quo, the activity has anything but a neutral effect on society. The movements of different ethnic groups into California over the past two hundred years have provided opportunities for some elements and created anger among others. What follows is an analysis of immigration and its impact on public-policy making in California. The discussion begins with a chronology of immigration patterns in California and then shifts to the types of immigration, issues emerging from these activities, and public policy responses at the state and federal levels.

Assessing immigration patterns in California provides powerful information, not only because of the way that immigration has shaped the state's policies, but because of the potential impacts elsewhere. As shown by the national tax revolt, the environmental movement, and other socioeconomic issues, California has a history of receiving and dealing with controversial questions that ultimately trickle eastward.3 By understanding the responses to the immigration issue in California, we may well anticipate discussions and public responses in other states and at the national level.

Immigration History in California

California has had a love-hate history with immigrants. Historically, immigrants have moved into the state to become major elements of the labor force, often taking jobs that others found undesirable. Agricultural work, piecemeal garment production, and day construction are among areas of the economy that have been filled by immigrants. At the same time, as immigrants have changed the composition of the state, they have been viewed by some as more [End Page 58] burdensome than beneficial, causing more problems than they solve. Many of these objections have centered on the ethnic, cultural, and language differences as being so different from the mainstream as to cause discomfort for the mainstream. Lost in the latter argument is the inescapable fact that the immigrants of a generation ago have become part of the mainstream today.

Immigrants are a cornerstone of California's development. Upward of fifteen thousand years ago, the ancestors of American Indians in the state crossed over the Bering Strait into Alaska and down the Pacific Coast land- mass into California and elsewhere. By the eighteenth century, these first Californians numbered somewhere between three hundred thousand and 1 million. Unlike nomadic and sometimes hostile tribes elsewhere in what became the western half of the United States, California Indians were unusually peaceful, prosperous, and well-organized political units.

All of the relative tranquility changed when Spanish...


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pp. 57-71
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Archived 2019
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