October 19, 2001

Poverty, Disillusionment Await Los Angeles' Immigrant Children Unless School System Improves

As the nation's largest destination for immigrants in general and Mexican nationals in particular, Los Angeles needs to prepare quickly to pay the piper for the economic benefits of low-income labor, two UCLA sociologists warn in a new book.

"Los Angeles is able to absorb and employ even the least skilled immigrants at a truly impressive rate, but it appears just as incapable of offering them a living wage," said Roger Waldinger, editor of "Strangers at the Gates: New Immigrants in Urban America" (University of California Press) and chair of UCLA's sociology department. "Serious trouble lies ahead unless we're able to develop the social infrastructure to ensure that the children of today's unskilled immigrants do considerably better than their parents."

Waldinger coordinated a team of researchers who used data from the 1994_1998 U.S. Current Population Survey to compare the educational backgrounds and employment and income levels in the five U.S. cities that attract the most immigrants. In addition to Los Angeles, they include New York, Chicago, Miami and San Francisco. "Strangers at the Gates" paints the most up-to-date picture available of U.S. immigration until the 2000 census figures on immigration and employment are released next year.

With one-fifth of the nation's immigrants, Los Angeles is attracting the nation's largest share of low-skilled and poorly educated newcomers, Walding-er found. Yet, thanks to informal social networks built over generations by immigrants, even the least skilled immigrants from Mexico — Los Angeles' largest source — quickly get connected to a job, he discovered.

For example, among Mexicans who arrived in Los Angeles during the 1990s, the typical man had only six years of schooling, but eight of 10 such men were holding down jobs.

Among the city's blacks, by contrast, the average man had obtained at least some college education. Even so, employment rates for this group did not match the level achieved by the most recently arrived immigrants from Mexico.

"Unskilled immigrants, with far less education than the least schooled among the urban blacks, find jobs that, according to conventional wisdom, either should not or do not exist," Waldinger said.

But Los Angeles' newcomers were much less successful in finding adequate employment — or earnings at least 50 percent above the federal poverty limit. Among the most recent Mexican immigrants, the typical man has roughly a five in 10 chance of holding a job that pays a living wage. Odds improve with time spent in the United States, but only to a limited extent.

Looking at those Mexican men who have lived in the United States for 20 years or longer, Waldinger found that only seven out of 10 were earning a living wage. Education proved more important for earning a living wage than time spent in the United States. So if employed, the typical black man had a nine in 10 chance of earning a living wage.

"The same social networks that help these immigrants find work, also appear to funnel them into a narrow tier of the economy where newcomers quickly saturate demand and compete with each other, further driving down wages," Waldinger said.

Even if it were possible to turn the tide on this surge of immigration, Los Angeles would be loathe to take the step, Waldinger writes, because the metropolis's economy has become "addicted" to the low-income labor that only these newcomers tend to provide.

"While the region's established residents are at best ambivalent about the immigrants, its employers know a good deal when they see one: an incessant flow of job seekers willing to do any job at bargain-basement rates," he writes.

In fact, Waldinger found that Los Angeles responded to the nation's largest surge of immigration over the period in question by nearly doubling the positions in such immigrant-absorbing, low-skilled occupations as janitors, gardeners and domestics.

While the children of Mexican immigrants do much better than their parents, they still lag behind the children of other immigrants on most every socioeconomic measure: high school graduation, college attendance, finding adequate employment and entry into professional occupations, found Min Zhou, a UCLA sociology professor and contributor to "Strangers at the Gates."

"The children of immigrants are doing much better than their parents in every city, but the Los Angeles children have so much farther to come that they are still behind all the other immigrant children," Zhou said.

As a result, Los Angeles has the highest dropout rate for second-generation immigrants of the five cities that were studied. By contrast, San Francisco, buoyed by immigration of much higher skilled and better-educated Asians, claims the strongest high school graduation rates.

Los Angeles also lags behind every region but Chicago in college attendance among first- and second-generation immigrants — a measure on which the Bay Area also ranks first.

By the third generation, Los Angeles' track record in getting these children through high school and into college improves slightly, but the region still lags behind every immigration center but Miami on these key predictors of economic success, Zhou found.

The effects ripple through at least three generations. Although children and grandchildren of immigrants fare better than first-generation immigrants in Los Angeles' labor market, they lag behind their peers in all five immigration centers in the ability to find work that pays a living wage, Zhou found.

Los Angeles immigrants and their children also are at greatest risk for bottoming out altogether, Zhou found. Through the third generation, immigrants are more likely to be become marginalized — neither pursuing an education nor employment — in Los Angeles than in any other U.S. immigration center.

"With more than half of the children of Los Angeles' immigrants now under 14, we're at an important crossroads," she said. "Either the state moves quickly and decisively to ensure these children rise to the level of their peers, or we may be looking at a whole new under-class."

"These children are U.S.-born," she continued. "Unlike their parents they won't be likely to take any job they can get. They have expectations. It's a real possibility that they'll become trapped in poverty and disillusionment."

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