From issue: Our Immigrant Hemisphere (Summer 2008)
Moving the Debate Forward: What California Can Teach Us
Out of California's long—and rocky—experience with immigration has emerged a quiet consensus that can help lead the U.S. out of its current dead end.
California, America’s most populous state—with the dimensions, economy, power, and international ties, if not the sovereignty, of a nation—can and should play a leading role in attempting to break the U.S. legislative impasse on immigration policy and in forging policies to integrate immigrants more successfully into twenty-first century America. It should do so because California has long-standing, unique and relevant experience with immigration; because Californians have a huge stake in reforming the country’s dysfunctional immigration regime; and because they are ready to take the lead in demonstrating positive approaches to integrating immigrants.
This will not be a simple matter, particularly as making and implementing immigration policy are obviously and necessarily federal responsibilities. But the issue is so central to California’s future that the state should try to find ways to specify and promote its interests, and to help lead and shape national policy.
Immigrants and the Making of Modern California
From its earliest days, California has attracted diverse international immigration and built its prosperity on the labor of foreign-born workers. International immigrants were at the forefront of the mid-nineteenth- century gold rush and in the stunning development of California’s agriculture. They constructed the railroads, dams, aqueducts, and highways that made possible the state’s rapid twentieth-century growth. They led the emergence of Hollywood as the world’s cinema capital and contributed to California’s rapid expansion during and after World War II.
In more recent decades, a considerable share of California’s economic productivity and expansion is due to the contribution of international immigrants. Silicon Valley’s transformation into the world’s center for the computer industry was largely spearheaded by foreign-born immigrant engineers and entrepreneurs. According to one study, 39 percent of technology start-ups in California in the past decade were founded or co-founded by entrepreneurs born in China or India. Immigrant entrepreneurs, scientists and technicians also play a major role in the rise of the biomedical sector in nearly all of the state’s major cities. At the same time, California’s health care system relies heavily on foreign-born doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care professionals. Immigrant labor in restaurants, hotels, child care, construction, building maintenance, landscaping, car washes, laundries, and many other fields has also become critical to the lives of California’s middle and upper classes...