Editor's Note | Spring 2017 Issue

Land of Immigrants

There are few issues in America more combustible than immigration. This issue of Blueprint examines it from many angles.

By Jim Newton

THERE ARE FEW MORE COMBUSTIBLE ISSUES IN AMERICA today than immigration. It suffuses arguments about a proposed wall along the Mexican border; about temporarily banning people from predominantly Muslim countries and refugees from around the world; about the status of sanctuary cities — and about the larger question of how best to encourage immigrants to come to the United States legally without demonizing those who, despite having entered without authorization or overstayed visas, have become valued members of our society. In this, as in so many debates, California has much history to draw upon and many experiences — some positive, others not — to guide us.

From its inception, California has been an attraction for immigrants, but its history of assimilating those immigrants has been mixed. The gold fields drew Chileans and Chinese; the railroads were built by foreign labor; the exclusion and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was a shame shared by many, not least Californians. As the Infographic in this issue of Blueprint demonstrates, foreign-born residents have always been a bigger part of California than of the nation as a whole.

Yet California’s lessons are as complicated as they are contradictory. The same state that approved draconian limits on services for illegal immigrants in the form of infamous Proposition 187 (In retrospect, does anyone still believe it was smart to deny immigrant children vaccinations?) now offers more services to immigrants than any other place in America. Today, an immigrant in California without documentation can approach the police in many cities to report a crime without fear of deportation, can acquire a driver’s license, can send children to school and can live in relative security. That’s not true in many other places. Today in the nation’s capital, many would seek to deny undocumented immigrants all of those privileges, regardless of their ties to communities, and would send them away to countries where they have not lived for decades, even at the cost of separating them from their children born here.

Indeed, California and the federal government are moving in such conspicuously opposite directions on immigration that the issue is a prime motivator of Sacramento’s growing resistance to federal authority altogether. Far from knuckling under to the notion that California should reverse course and crack down on those who are here illegally, officials in Sacramento and many California municipalities and school districts are tacking in the other direction, vowing to defend students and workers and crime victims. A reckoning seems inevitable.

It is easy to imagine that these times are unique, that something is so terribly amiss in Washington that it reveals an aberration of America itself — or, at least, that it represents a wave of distrust that cuts profoundly against modern trends in California. In one sense, that is true. Washington and Sacramento today offer dramatically contrasting examples of how to greet and incorporate foreign-born residents into our society.

And yet, it is also true that President Donald J. Trump and his allies have created an illusion of surging American antipathy toward immigrants. There are pockets of this nation where suspicion of immigrants runs high, but Americans overwhelmingly agree that immigrants are “more of a strength than a burden” to society (63% in a recent Pew Research poll). And here is a thought to consider: In 2016, at the height of a presidential campaign in which Trump’s proposed border wall was a centerpiece, 30% of Americans said they were satisfied with the present level of foreigners coming to the United States. As of January 2017, those who were satisfied with the level of immigration had grown to 41%, an all-time high. This is a nation, like most, that can fall victim to purveyors of alarm, but it is not one that reviles immigrants.

Jim Newton

Jim Newton

Jim Newton is a veteran author and journalist who spent 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief, editorial page editor and columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of three critically acclaimed books of biography and history, and he teaches at UCLA.

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