Human tsumani

By Valerie Richardson
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

June 25, 2004

LOS ANGELES- Ines Netkin lives in a neat, ranch-style home in middle-class Los Angeles County, but she worries that her neighborhood is starting to look like it belongs south of the border."It used to be nice to live around here, but it's deteriorating. We have dirty streets, traffic jams, more crime. It's not the way it used to be," Mrs. Netkin said. "I feel like it's going to become like Mexico City. Right now, if you closed your eyes and opened them in downtown Los Angeles, you would think that you were in Mexico City."

Mrs. Netkin should know. Born Ines Acevedo, she left her home in Mexico City 15 years ago and came to Los Angeles as an illegal alien. She worked as a nanny, learned to speak and write English, and then became a legal U.S. resident by marrying one.

Now she regards with frustration the Hispanic immigrants she sees taking over her San Fernando Valley Van Nuys neighborhood, packing 20 persons into single-family homes, turning the local stores into Spanish-only tiendas, leaving their burnt-out stoves and infested mattresses in the alley behind her house, slowly but surely driving out their middle-class neighbors.

"It wouldn't be so bad if they would adapt to our ways, but they don't. We have to adapt to their ways," Mrs. Netkin said. "Whatever happened to, 'When in Rome'?"

There's more than a little irony to Mrs. Netkin's views, but her experience also sums up the best and worst aspects of the illegal-immigration wave spilling over Los Angeles. On the one hand, there are immigrants such as Mrs. Netkin, 41, who crossed illegally but took a job that most natives wouldn't. She accepted lower pay, then assimilated into the culture and became a productive, voting citizen.

On the other hand, there are the knotty social and economic problems that inevitably arise when millions of mostly poor, uneducated job-seekers who don't speak English descend upon a metropolitan area without pausing to let the system catch its breath.

"Illegal immigration has imposed a catastrophic impact on taxpayers and seriously crippled our public school system," said Mike Antonovich, a 21-year member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. "While we need legal immigration, which is essential, illegal immigration has been detrimental to the economy and to our quality of life."

Inundation

There's no doubt that Los Angeles has benefited from the infusion of hard-working illegal workers who clean hotel rooms, bus restaurant tables, and otherwise keep its billion-dollar tourism industry humming.

Raphael Sonenshein, author of a book on racial politics in Los Angeles, said that a recognition of their work ethic has reduced tension over illegal aliens. There's less volatility over the issue than there was in 1994, when voters approved Proposition 187, which would have cut services to illegal immigrants.

The measure, approved by voters with 60 percent of the vote, was later struck down in court.

"Things have changed. For one thing, you see that people are working, so the idea that these people are here for welfare isn't as prevalent," said Mr. Sonenshein, a political science professor at California State University at Fullerton. "It's true that you have people using services, but they also contribute to the economy."

But the number of illegal immigrants in Los Angeles County has grown so great, critics say, that the benefits of their labor are far outweighed by the costs they impose on the city's social-services network. The county hospitals, the school system, the jails and other services are groaning under the weight of the unending human tsunami from Mexico.

California swelled by 4.2 million people from 1990 to 2000, and nearly all of that growth came from immigration, primarily from Mexico, Latin America and Asia. Without those immigrants and their children, the native population would have increased by fewer than 100,000, according to Californians for Population Stabilization.

An estimated 2 million illegal immigrants, most from Mexico, live in California, with about 40 percent of them residing in the greater Los Angeles area. Los Angeles County added about 1 million residents, bringing its population to 10 million, an increase of more than 10 percent in the span of a decade.

The sheer size of the immigration wave has resulted in a troubling demographic shift. When Mrs. Netkin says Los Angeles resembles Mexico City, she's not just referring to the Spanish-language billboards: Like many of the great Latin American cities, Los Angeles is increasingly evolving into a city of the very rich and very poor, without a middle class to anchor it.

As immigrants pour into Los Angeles, native or longtime residents are pouring out. An October 2003 study by William H. Frey of the Brookings Institution found that the five-county Los Angeles region lost 550,000 domestic migrants from 1995 to 2000, most of them middle- and lower-middle-class workers seeking relief from rising housing and public services costs.

This wasn't a case of "white flight." In Los Angeles, Mr. Frey said, migration "was no longer dominated by whites."

"... In the Los Angeles metro area, whites made up a minority, and Hispanics a bare majority (51 percent) of net out-migration."

Diana Hull, president of the Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization, said that the flood of cheap labor may have kept lettuce prices low, but it's also made it difficult for working families to afford living in Los Angeles.

"They're all leaving because housing costs are very high and wages are very low," she said.

"Immigration has been a great depressor of blue-collar wages. If you're middle class and you didn't buy a home years ago, you can't afford housing. So for office workers, firemen, teachers people in occupations that don't pay very much it's too expensive to buy a house," Mrs. Hull said. "As we get more and more of an immigrant population, we're losing our middle class."

What's more, the middle class tends to feel the brunt of tax increases designed to keep pace with the demands of poor immigrants who rely on state-provided medical care, education and welfare.

"The middle class is moving out because, one, they can't afford to live here; two, they don't want to send their kids to school here; and three, they're being heavily taxed to pay for services they're not using," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

Even so, polls show that residents don't want to cut health care and other services for immigrants.

According to a March 2004 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), 61 percent of respondents said that illegal immigrants should have access to health care, while only 33 percent wanted to deny it.

Mr. Sonenshein argued that the poor immigrants' children have the potential to become the new middle class, depending on the education and other services they receive from their new country.

"There's sort of a decline of the middle class: The white population is moving out, the black population is moving out," he said. "But you also see immigrants coming in who are working class and middle class. It's just that the size of the working class is so huge that it makes the middle class look smaller."

Like previous waves of immigrants from Europe and Asia, he said, the Mexican and Central American arrivals will eventually assimilate. But other Angelenos aren't so sure.

In the past, assimilating into the broader culture was the key to success for immigrants. Today, however, so many Mexicans are arriving in Los Angeles that, instead of adapting to the larger culture, they're forcing the culture to adapt to them, critics say.

Los Angeles has long had its ethnic neighborhoods, including East Los Angeles, the historic Hispanic district. Now, enclaves of Spanish-speaking homes and businesses are spread throughout the county, even in upscale, previously untouched communities such as Sherman Oaks, located in the western San Fernando Valley.

Victor Davis Hanson, a classics professor and farmer in Selma, Calif., says the proximity of Mexico makes these immigrants less amenable to assimilation than their Irish or Russian predecessors. It's possible for a Mexican immigrant to live and work in Los Angeles for 10 or 20 years without ever learning English, becoming a citizen or voting.

"A Mexican in California senses that if he fails to integrate into mainstream American society, there will always be thousands more newcomers like himself who will know almost nothing about the United States, and thus by sheer numbers join him in a viable expatriate culture," says Mr. Hanson in his book "Mexifornia: A State of Becoming."
 
Antonio Marquez weighs a package of meat for a customer at the San Pedro Market Carniceria in South Central Los Angeles, which has become increasingly Hispanic.
ROD A. LAMKEY, JR. (THE WASHINGTON TIMES)
ROD A. LAMKEY, JR.
(THE WASHINGTON TIMES)

 

A cultural divide

One cultural difference that rankles Angelenos is the attitude toward trash. In northern Mexico, waste disposal isn't widely available, and there's no widespread cultural prohibition against littering. So areas where new arrivals congregate tend to suffer from trash-strewn streets and impromptu dump sites.

Then there's the housing situation. Finding affordable housing is nearly impossible for natives, not to mention poor immigrants. So they squeeze 10 or 20 people into a single-family home and split the rent, which solves their problem but creates new ones for their neighbors.

"They live in conditions you and I would never consider," said Hal Netkin, Mrs. Netkin's husband. "They take shifts using the beds. These landlords look the other way they don't care as long as they get their money and [the immigrants] don't complain. And they're not complainers."

The housing-affordability rate in Los Angeles has dipped to 20 percent, but that hasn't slowed them down.

"You can't touch a San Fernando Valley house for less than $300,000. So how can these immigrants afford to live here? They can't afford to live here," Mr. Netkin said. "But they do."

As the social and economic costs of the rising population mount, Los Angeles political leaders are naturally searching for solutions. But it's rare to hear any elected official use the word "illegal"; instead, they describe the problem as "growth."

Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, citing the impact of growth on the already-tight housing market, has put affordable housing at the top of his list of priorities. Despite a $300 million budget shortfall in the city's $5.1 billion budget, Mr. Hahn said earlier this month that he would increase the affordable-housing trust fund to $100 million.

The new Ellis Island?

What frustrates critics is the refusal of political leaders to link growth to illegal immigration. Instead, they say, the city grapples with the effects of growth while moving to make the city more inviting to the immigrants behind the growth.

Last month, critics were flabbergasted when the city opened its new Office of Immigrant Affairs, designed to answer immigrants' questions about living in Los Angeles in myriad languages.

"The mayor feels that the city needs to help people living in Los Angeles get the services they need," said City Hall deputy press secretary Sahar Mordani, noting that 42 percent of city residents were born in another country.

Mr. Hahn signed an ordinance last month that will ease the use of consular identification cards. Used by noncitizens, the cards are issued by foreign embassies and used as a form of identification for obtaining services. The city already recognizes the cards issued by the Mexican consulate, known as the "matricula consulars."

"In a city of more than 100 languages, rightfully known as the Ellis Island of the 21st century, it makes sense to recognize the ID cards that other governments issue their citizens," Los Angeles City Councilman Eric Garcetti said in March.

As a so-called "sanctuary" city, Los Angeles is literally a haven for illegal immigrants who don't want to discuss their status with government officials. Police are forbidden from questioning a suspect about his or her immigration status under Special Order 40.

And yet polls consistently show that, while they appreciate legal immigrants, most residents want to see illegal immigration stopped. The 2004 PPIC survey showed that 73 percent of respondents saw illegal immigration as a major or moderate problem.

Why the disconnect? Critics blame it on old-fashioned politics: As the pool of illegal immigrants grows larger, so does their political clout. They may not be citizens, but they have powerful defenders in the form of advocacy groups such as the Mexican American Political Association and the labor unions, which are increasingly Hispanic.

"They've gotten so large that they're now a political force to be reckoned with," Mr. Mehlman said. "Even though a lot of these people aren't voters, the Latino politicians take it very personally if you try to deny them anything. Just by their sheer numbers, they constitute a political force."

Then there's the race issue. No white politician wants to be seen as anti-Hispanic, especially in Los Angeles, where Hispanics make up 51 percent of the population, despite polls showing that Hispanic citizens are also worried about the illegal tide.

"No one looks at it because no one wants the backlash," said Tony Bell, chief of staff for Mr. Antonovich. "If you even mention illegal immigration, 'you're anti-Hispanic, you're anti-immigrant. Shame on you.'"

With such a chasm between leadership and public opinion, frustration over the issue emerges in such forums as talk radio and the Internet. Web sites such as Glenn Spencer's American Patrol and Mr. Netkin's L.A. Watchdog have a growing audience among foes of illegal immigration.

Talk-show host Terry Anderson deals almost exclusively with immigration issues on his Sunday-evening talk show on KRLA-AM. Minutes before his show goes on the air, the phone lines are jammed with callers, and they stay that way throughout the hour.

Favorite targets are President Bush, whose immigration plan is routinely blasted, and the Los Angeles city leadership, which Mr. Anderson accuses of catering to illegal immigrants.

"The John and Ken Show," a leading afternoon talk show on KFI-AM, has also recently taken on illegal immigration. As a result, the Mexican American Political Association is calling for a boycott of the program and its sponsors.

"It's big business now it's fashionable to be against illegal immigration," Mr. Anderson said. "People listen to this show and they're angry. I've never seen them this angry before."

That may be true of a small cadre of conservatives, said Mr. Sonenshein, the attitude among most Angelenos is much more benign. The panic of 1994 when Prop 187 passed has gradually morphed into a general acceptance.

"Sometimes, society just has to deal with things. And this may be one of those things," Mr. Sonenshein said. "As we've seen, the immigrant bashing of 1994 was both factually unfair and politically unadvisable."

Virtually alone among Los Angeles politicians, Mr. Antonovich is trying to resist the tide. He's proposing a bonding program that would require employers to sponsor their undocumented workers before they can enter the country. Any costs they incur, such as county health care, would be covered by the bond.

Mr. Antonovich also wants to build clinics just across the border in Mexico, giving Mexicans access to low-cost, high-quality medical care so that they have less incentive to cross into California.

"What needs to happen is an attack on illegal immigration and full support for a legal immigration policy," Mr. Antonovich said. "Because what's happening in L.A. County is happening in other states, and it's going to be happening across the country."