California's Got a Heavy Stake in Integrating Immigrants

Editor's Note: Immigrants and their children will radically alter future elections in California, says a new study. The imperative now is a good integration policy, says Daranee Petzod, Executive Director of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR). Immigration Matters regularly features the views of the nation's leading immigrant rights advocates.

Immigrants and their children could play a pivotal role in future California elections. Despite public misconceptions to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of California's 6.5 million foreign-born residents are either already citizens, or eligible to naturalize and vote. These immigrants and their 1.2 million U.S.-citizen children could represent close to a third of the state's potential voters by 2012.

These are the findings of a recently released demographic study commissioned by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR). One of the most striking findings of the GCIR study is that nearly half of California's youth who will become eligible to vote by 2012 have at least one immigrant parent. These young people have close ties to the immigrant experience and their natural interest in issues affecting immigrant families will likely shape their vote.

Huber Trenado, a 19-year-old East Oakland native, is one such young voter. Huber currently attends UC Berkeley on a Fulbright Scholarship funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. His parents can't vote, and only some of his adult siblings are registered. Huber told me, "I vote because it's important to me, my family and my community. Not all of us can vote, so I do it for them."

Like Huber's family, most immigrant families are woven into the fabric of American communities. Nationwide, 85 percent of immigrant families have mixed immigration status, and 75 percent of children of immigrants are U.S. citizens. These immigrant families, Huber points out, care about many of the same issues as other Californians: education, jobs, health care, crime and safety. So it makes sense that efforts to integrate immigrants must consider this growing population within the context of their community. Such efforts must also pay close attention to race and intergroup relations so that they unite rather than divide communities. Keeping these considerations in mind can help expand resources to address longstanding social problems such as poverty, as well as increase racial and ethnic equity and cohesion that are vital to the well-being of an increasingly diverse society.

Good integration policy is not only the morally right thing to do but it is also a sound investment in the vitality of our state. California's current and future economic growth and stability depend on immigrants and their children to contribute as workers, taxpayers, consumers and entrepreneurs. As native birth rates continue to decline and the baby-boom generation begins to retire, immigrants and their children play a central role in addressing labor-market shortages and maintaining our global competitiveness.

Thoughtful integration policies will have a direct impact on all California families and communities. Integration has the potential to create stronger communities with the ability to meet wide-ranging needs which will enrich the social and cultural fabric of our society. But it will require both established and newcomer residents -- contributing diverse experiences, backgrounds, histories and ethnicities -- to work together and push forward a shared community-building agenda.

In this dynamic two-way process of integration, newcomers and the receiving society must play an active role. Immigrants must do their part to learn about civic processes, engage in the life of the broader community, and vote. Our society, in turn, must provide opportunities for citizenship and civic engagement.

In California, potential new voters from immigrant families could have a large electoral voice in both Republican and Democratic districts, representing more than 250,000 voters in seven California counties and more than 100,000 in 15 counties. Like other Californians, these new voters want a strong economy, a safe and healthy community, and a bright future for themselves and their families.

Every Californian has a stake in the timely integration of immigrants. By investing in integration efforts, we can strengthen our social fabric, invigorate our democracy, and create a more cohesive society in which all groups have the opportunity -- and the responsibility -- to engage in and contribute to the common good.

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