Article City Forum Greg Keidan

Leadership, Immigration and California’s Changing Demographics

Greg Keidan is program coordinator for the Institute for Local Government’s Collaborative Governance Initiative and can be reached at

“Local Leadership and the Changing Demographics of California’s Communities” was the topic of the Institute for Local Government’s (ILG) Fourth Annual Symposium, held in conjunction with the League’s annual conference in Long Beach in September 2008. Manuel Pastor, Ph.D., University of Southern California professor and director of the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, spoke on California’s increasing immigrant population, especially among younger people, and the significance of these changes for city officials.

Pastor pointed out the changing patterns in California’s immigrant population. Increasingly, it is not only cities that have substantial immigrant populations but also the surrounding suburbs. And immigrants today are from a more diverse set of countries of origin compared to 30 years ago when almost half were from Mexico. Immigrants are learning English more rapidly than ever before and exhibiting significant levels of entrepreneurship. They also have a higher level of home ownership than Californians born in the United States.

California Shows Key Trend

Pastor spoke about California’s changing demographics and showed a series of slides illustrating the projected increase in “minority” populations through 2050. (The slides are available online at

“Our state gives insight into changes that are in store for our country. The demographic change that occurred in California between 1980 and 2000 is the same change the nation will go through between 2000 and 2050,” said Pastor. He added that the issues associated with increasing immigrant populations experienced by California since the 1960s are only more recently being faced by the rest of the nation, where the percentage of the population that was foreign born stayed relatively stable until the 1990s.

Education’s Role in Our Economic Future

Regarding concentrated poverty in California, Pastor said, “It’s a challenge to be poor, but it’s more of a challenge to be poor surrounded by other poor people; it’s a challenge to move people out of concentrated poverty.” While concentrated poverty fell nationwide in the 1990s, it rose in California, with Fresno becoming one of the most affected cities.

Pastor stressed that education is more important in California today than ever before, because making sure that immigrant children and their families are successful is key to the state’s economic future. “In Los Angeles County, a third of residents, half the workforce and two-thirds of children are immigrants. How we do by them is going to shape the future of the region,” he said.

Pastor suggested there is still a need for more efforts to integrate immigrants in a way that allows people to be successful. He argued the need for greater funding for programs to help immigrants learn English so that they can become economically mobile and involved in the civic life of their community. Using the story of his own family’s immigration and integration experience as an example, Pastor encouraged California’s local leaders to create opportunities for all residents to participate in the civic, political and economic life of their communities.

Sharing Ideas and Resources

A follow-up session featured a panel discussion of ideas and resources for local officials related to immigrant integration. Watsonville Mayor Oscar Rios, who was born in El Salvador, talked about the need to increase the number of people participating in local government and make local agency information and deliberations accessible through translation.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, offered strategies for local officials working to involve immigrants in civic engagement efforts. Cora Oriel, co-founder of a nationwide group of newspapers serving Filipino-Americans, spoke of the important role that ethnic media play in helping to integrate immigrants and reshaping the political landscape. Daranee Petsod, executive director of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, shared resources local officials can use to create an intentional integration process to benefit immigrants and the broader community. A lively discussion about immigrant integration, including a number of personal stories from local officials, concluded the session.

In addition to organizing this symposium and the follow-up session, ILG is supporting local agency immigrant integration efforts by offering translation assistance and a new publication, A Local Official’s Guide to Immigrant Civic Engagement, available at

In 2009, the symposium will present examples of and guidance on how local officials can utilize land use planning to support healthy communities.

This article appears in the December 2008 issue of Western City
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