Cutting Welfare for the Children of Immigrants will Devastate California

08/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Emily Henry Health Care Policy Research Consultant, Journalist, Yogi, Mother

Some say that the "big one" -- the earthquake that will destroy California and send it seeping into the Pacific Ocean - lies in patient dormancy beneath us, waiting for the perfect time to strike. But lately, competition for the state's imminent destruction has been fierce. With budget woes reaching a fantastical level, and problems tricking in from every corner, the matter has become not a question of if or when California will be devastated, but what or who will get there first.

One of the main contenders is yet another form of powerful movement: immigration. But the threat is different than it was when the first migrants traveled across the border to seek work in the U.S, almost a century ago. Now, the demographic shift in California due to immigration is not a threat at all, but a fact. By 2030, more than half of the population of California will be immigrants and their children.Inbound immigration is slowing, and the "immigrant stock" in America is growing from within.

And yet, instead of recognizing the major shift and accepting it as a significant part of California's future, long-outdated, irrelevant fears persist. Now, the anti-immigration movement has aimed its efforts at penalizing this growing majority of California's population in the hope it will shrink.

The Los Angeles Times reports that activists are campaigning to cut welfare payments benefiting the children of immigrants born in the U.S.

The "big one" just got closer.

If these children, who are not only American citizens, but also, inevitably, hold the key to California's future welfare, experience such a dramatic blow to their already-limited resource bank, the consequences for the entire state will be dire. Second generation immigrants carry the burden of success: they must climb the social ladder from bottom to top if they are to fill the void being left by a retiring baby-boom generation, as USC Professor Dowell Myers explains in his book "Immigrants and Boomers:"

Two of the most crucial questions in California are whether this future generation of workers will be able to replace the highly skilled baby boomers who are retiring and whether they will be able to carry the tax burdens required to support services for this large population of retirees.

In order to do so, the children of immigrants need to be socially upwardly mobile at an accelerated speed. Many must move from impoverished households and working class labor markets to professional and powerful careers. They must become the first generation in their families to not only excel at higher education, but even to complete high school. They must stride up the social ladder, because there is no time to tip-toe. The boomers are already retiring and California is in trouble.

But moving quickly requires more resources, not less. Rapid upward mobility depends on whether or not the children of immigrants are provided with social support, community connections, and the means to traverse bifurcated labor markets through educational opportunities. It also depends on whether or not they are able to maintain cultural bonds, such as language, in a process labeled "selective acculturation" by theorists Alejandro Portes and Rubén G. Rumbaut, authors of "Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation."

The children of monolingual Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles, for example, may have little or no chance of practicing English at home or getting help with their homework, resulting in complete reliance on a public school system that is, frankly, in disarray. And because resources continue to be cut, social upward mobility is slow, especially in inner-city markets. Despite the increasing dominance of the Latino population in Los Angeles, the children of immigrants are trapped in the same cycles of low-education and poverty as their parents. Drop-out rates are high and test scores are low. Despair and resignation is deeply entrenched. Cultural bonds are weak or isolated, and alternative options for integration and definition, such as gangs, are prevalent.

In fact, breaking free of the social glue that binds second generation immigrants to the lowest rungs of the labor market has arguably become more difficult now than when the immigrant population was small enough to be an exception, rather than a rule. The children of immigrants are surrounded by opportunities to leave school early and enter long-established, working class communities. Resources, the kind of which could potentially counter-balance the negative factors of assimilation, continue to wane.

Meanwhile, economic woes are causing a few Californians to point fingers at the immigrant stock. "The great demographic transition has been poorly received because the majority population resists accepting the decline of its dominant position," writes Myers. Although the last 50 years has seen impressive levels of upward mobility for Latinos in America, including great strides into positions of power, an overwhelming number of second generation immigrants are trapped under a low glass ceiling. We can either raise the roof, or bring it down on them, and take cover as California falls apart.

Emily Henry is currently working on a series of stories about second-generation Latino immigrants in California for the Carnegie-Knight sponsored News21 project.