Madam Representative Hilda Solis, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, thank you for this opportunity to testify on The Regional Impacts and Opportunities of Migration in Los Angeles.
My name is Angelica Salas and I work with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles or CHIRLA. CHIRLA was formed in 1986 to advance the human and civil rights of immigrants and refugees in Los Angeles; promote harmonious multi-ethnic and multi-racial human relations; and through coalition-building, advocacy, community education and organizing, empower immigrants and their allies to build a more just society. I speak before you today to testify to the great, open secret in our midst, that is, the often unheralded fact of immigrant contributions to the County of Los Angeles.
As an immigrant rights organization, CHIRLA has been witness to the powerful presence of immigrants in our county and their amazing contributions to the development and transformation of Los Angeles. The future of Los Angeles hinges largely on how we integrate and provide better opportunities to the millions of immigrants in our midst. The Migration Policy Institute in a recent report on immigrant integration, revealed that Los Angeles County remains the largest immigrant metropolis in the nation, with more than one-third of its 9.9 million residents and nearly half its workforce comprised of immigrants. Consider also the following data from an upcoming report that CHIRLA has produced:
• The City of Los Angeles is home to people from more than 140 countries, who speak at least 224 different languages.
• Los Angeles County has the largest population of Asians in the entire United States—with a total of 1.3 million people. The County also has the largest population of Hispanic or Latino people—4.7 million. By 2050, these populations are expected to grow 200% and 187%, respectively. Additionally, over 30 countries have the largest representation of their nationals outside their home country. Examples include the largest population of Mexicans, Central Americans and Iranians.
• Immigrant worker populations in Los Angeles County are concentrated in a variety of sectors, which vary according to their immigration status. Immigrants as a whole are highly represented (in contrast to the general population) in manufacturing and personal services trades.
• In terms of percentages of the labor force as a whole, immigrants in Los Angeles County (including undocumented) make up 59% of service sector workers, 80% of production or manufacturing workers, 67% of construction workers, 62% of transportation workers, 46% of sales workers, 56% of agricultural workers, and 61% of installation workers. Even in fields where immigrants are less likely to work, their numbers are significant—they account for 30% of professional workers, 38% of office support workers, and 34% of management and business workers in Los Angeles County.
• As of 2005, first-generation immigrants had started at least 22 of Los Angeles’s 100 fastest growing companies. Immigrant entrepreneurs in Los Angeles have founded nationally successful firms such as El Pollo Loco, Panda Express, and LuLu’s Desserts. According to one estimate, immigrants are starting as much as 80% of all new businesses in Los Angeles. Throughout Los Angeles, immigrant entrepreneurs are revitalizing whole neighborhoods, opening up businesses and creating jobs and opportunities not just for themselves but for all Angelinos.
According to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation immigrants play an vital role in the fashion, furniture and food-processing industries, the main engine of the local economy. Immigrant participation in these industries produces millions of dollars in tax revenues and accounts for tens of thousands of jobs. The three industries together created 495,000 jobs for immigrants and U.S. citizen workers and paid $103 million in local sales taxes in 2006.
Promoting civic engagement and language access will help immigrants better participate in their social and political environment. Immigrants know that their social and economic possibilities are multiplied when they learn English. One third of Los Angeles county adults, or 2.3 million, are limited English proficient. Today most English classes are filled to capacity and require additional government attention to meet the extraordinary need. With increased investment in English as a second language programs all of Los Angeles will benefit.
Over 60% of immigrants in Los Angeles have a high school, college or advanced degree education. Many of their skills and knowledge are not utilized because they are few programs to recognize their credentials and help them incorporate into high skilled employment. Opening up access to higher education and financial aid programs to all immigrant youth will also allow for the best and the brightest to become professionals that contribute to Los Angeles society and tax base. Opening the doors of education to immigrants is critical to capitalizing on all the talent that immigrants have to offer Los Angeles.
Immigrants in Los Angeles County are also contributing to the vitality of Los Angeles County democracy. Los Angeles immigrants are active in campaigns to improve housing, educational, healthcare and labor conditions in Los Angeles. Immigrants are central to improving conditions for all who live and work in Los Angeles. Examples include the increase of wages and work conditions in the hotel and tourism industry of Los Angeles, the adoption of living wage ordinances, protection of the first amendment right to look for work for day laborers, and the improvement and access to schools for Los Angeles’ children. Immigrant communities are active citizens in Los Angeles and are demonstrating to the rest of the country and world that positive change can be achieved in their communities. Most recently, immigrants have filed a record 1.4 million naturalization applications, a demonstration of their willingness to become engaged in the American process. Most of the applications filed were from immigrants living in Los Angeles County.
Immigrants thrive in a welcoming environment by creating social and cultural networks that encourage them to invest in the creation of safer, cohesive communities. Yet, over two decades of restrictive and hostile immigrant policies are having a detrimental impact on immigrants and their ability to advance politically, socially and economically. For many immigrants their lack of access to a path to citizenship is relegating them to low paying jobs with few prospects to achieve their full potential. Over 1 million undocumented immigrants live in Los Angeles. According to the Migration Institute over 537,000 children have at least one undocumented parent. For these children their future is put in peril as a result of their parents own uncertain future and the threat of detention and deportation because of their immigration status. The passage of just and humane immigration policies that include legalization for undocumented, decreasing the wait times for legal visas and increase in labor protections and economic opportunities will exponentially grow immigrant contributions to Los Angeles and the nation.
I could go on and on to illustrate the obvious: there is a great and untapped potential in our midst, and it is our loss as a community if we continue to fail in recognizing the critical need to address immigration integration issues in our county in a genuinely committed and coordinated fashion. We can no longer wait for our government to seize this momentum, especially when its enforcement only policies sends the wrong signal to immigrant families and threatens everything that they hold dear about this country.
Immigrant integration is the concrete manifestation of an American dream made real. We carry the responsibility of making sure that immigrant workforce participation is recognized and reinforced, and that future generations of immigrant children join the mainstream of civic and economic life. As the facts of immigrant contributions continue to emerge, we can no longer hide from the consequences of inaction. The absence of just and humane immigration reform will continue to haunt our efforts at local integration if we also do not work towards addressing the policy gaps that exist to pursue positive integration programs. This is the challenge and opportunity before us, and I hope that as we have done so in the past, in the many battles we have fought with our immigrant families and friends, we will also rise to this challenge, and make Los Angeles County the best example of how immigrant social, political and economic incorporation is done.
1. LA County Integration report, MPI
2. A Closer Look: Portraits of Immigrants in Los Angeles, CHIRLA Report, May 2008
3. Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation, Impact of Raids on Los Angeles Economy, May 2008