California Needs More Immigrants


Southern California, just a few decades ago the fastest-growing region in the high-income world, is hitting a demographic tipping point. With a decade or more of domestic out-migration and a sharp fall in immigration, the region is morphing from a destination that attracts dreamers and builders into a place increasingly dominated by those born or bred here.

To some demographers, this transition from a magnet for migrants to a more native-born population represents something of a boon. As for migrants, one USC demographer wrote that California acts like "a gold pan that sifts through aspiring talent and keeps the best." Our new steady state is a good thing, the argument goes, since it offers a respite from the travails of rapid growth. All we need to focus on is spending more money on schools, and, not surprisingly, universities, and everything will turn out alright.

There may be some truth to all these points, but, historically, a decline in new migration also suggests something else: a picture oddly reminiscent of the kind of demographic stagnation long associated with places like Cleveland, Buffalo, N.Y., Pittsburgh and Detroit. A more native-dominated region may be both more socially stable but increasingly hidebound and lacking innovation.

For cities, demographic stagnation is not a recipe for success. Over the past decade, notes demographer Wendell Cox, the Los Angeles-Orange County area has seen the fifth-highest growth in the percentage of locally born people in its population, among nation's 51 largest metropolitan areas. The concern is not so much that people are leaving these places in droves; the real issue is that not enough new people, with new ideas and great ambition, are coming in.

Already, notes economist Bill Watkins, large parts of the state, particularly along the coast, are evolving into "geriatric ghettos" populated by aging, often-affluent baby boomers. And, as for keeping the "best," the steady decline in California's relative educational ranking, particularly in the younger cohorts, should convince us that we cannot reasonably rely on native-born residents to meet the challenges of the future.

Domestic Outmigration

Watkins also points out that California has been losing domestic migrants for 10 of the past 15 years. It's been worse in this region; over the past decade the Los Angeles-Orange County area suffered the third-highest rate in the country of net outmigration, slightly above New York's. Amazingly, on a per capita basis, people are leaving our sun-drenched metropolis more rapidly than from Rust Belt disaster areas such as Cleveland and Detroit.

In recent decades, this shortfall has been more than made up by foreign immigration. But in a stunning reversal of the trends in past decades, the number of foreign-born in our region has started to stagnate. Indeed, over the most-recent decade, the Southland has experienced the slowest rate of growth in its foreign-born population of any major region in the country. Los Angeles-Orange County gained 110,000 immigrants over the decade, one-sixth as many as New York City and only a quarter as many as Houston. Our immigrant population has grown less than that of much smaller regions such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Austin, Texas, Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth.

These patterns suggest a dangerous shift in our demographic DNA and a decline in our historic archetype as one of the world's most culturally and economically innovative regions. Throughout history, the movement of newcomers has accented the rise of great cities at their peak, from ancient Athens, Rome and Baghdad to early 20th century London, Berlin, New York and Chicago. Similarly, the ascendency of the great cities of modern Asia – from Tokyo to Shanghai to Hong Kong and Singapore – resulted from mass migration, usually from the countryside to the urban centers.

Pioneering Migrants

Southern California's evolution into one of the world's premier urban regions has been, for the most part, propelled by outsiders, people who came to this place in search of a better life. Starting in the 1880s, these tended to be other Americans, including Los Angeles Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis (Marietta, Ohio), and railway magnate Henry Huntington (Oneonta, N.Y.), and, later, Walt Disney (Kansas City, Mo.), Howard Ahmanson Sr. (Omaha, Neb.) and Dr. Jerry Buss (Kemmerer, Wyo.).

For such newcomers – including James Irvine, a native of Ireland – Southern California provided an opportunity to create new things of every type. Everything distinctive developed in Southern California was created largely by outsiders. The creators of the movie business were mostly Jews from Eastern Europe, while the aerospace industry was largely populated by Midwestern emigres. Even the people who built our cities came from elsewhere. Consider Ahmanson, who funded much of it. Developers like Eli Broad, a native of Detroit, or Nathan Shapell, a holocaust survivor from Poland, built many of the region's suburban communities.

In recent decades, L.A.'s outsiders have come increasingly from abroad. Most have come from Mexico and Asia, but also from the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and, increasingly, Africa. Their influence is everywhere, from the food trucks to the ethnic malls, at the universities and in the music scene. A large number of the smaller banks in the region are tied to immigrant communities.

Nowhere is the influence greater than in the entrepreneurial arena. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Los Angeles-Long Beach frequently led in new immigration, newcomers from abroad fueled the rise of industries from garments to international trade and food processing. They are the primary creators of our food truck culture and often the chefs and owners of our finest restaurants.

Business Starters

Simply put, immigrants provided the critical oxygen for our economy, which, as a group, they are still doing. Even in the midst of the recession, newcomers continued to form businesses at a record rate, while the start-up rate for native-born entrepreneurs declined. The immigrant share of new businesses, notes a Kauffman Foundation survey, more than doubled, from 13.4 percent in 1996 to 29.5 percent, in 2010.

Nationally, immigrants are responsible for roughly a quarter of all high-tech start-ups. Asians, who constitute more than 40 percent of newcomers, now account for roughly 20 percent of tech workers, four times their percentage of the population.

How much is this dynamism, which once blessed the Southland, is now heading to Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth or even Charlotte, N.C.? It seems likely that, without the economic push from the immigrants and their countries, the reinvention of our economy will be far slower. Southern California natives seem far less likely to take the risks, and create the new industries, the region desperately needs.

Regaining our allure to newcomers is now arguably our biggest challenge. We have some fine assets, such as great weather, universities and a strong entrepreneurial legacy. Critically, despite the stagnant past decade, the Los Angeles-Orange County region still remains the second-largest repository of immigrants, at 4.4 million, behind only the greater New York area's 5.5 million. Virtually any ethnic group can find schools, shops and banks tied to their home countries; for some, like Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexicans and Iranians, Southern California remains a critical ethnic bastion and beacon.

Shift Focus

In this process, immigration reform could prove helpful, although most attention has been paid to legalizing undocumented immigrants already in the country. This may well be justified on moral ground but, in some ways, that debate is fighting the last war, as the flow of illegal immigration from Mexico has slowed, and may even be reversing. Legal immigration from Mexico also has declined markedly in recent years.

A far more strategic concern would be easing the flow of Asian immigrants, who, according to a recent Pew study, are generally better educated and affluent than other newcomers. Asian immigrants are also more likely to start business; a 2012 Kauffman study notes that close to 40 percent of immigrant entrepreneurs come from India or China. We should be looking to capture all such skilled and entrepreneurial newcomers, from any country and, hopefully, also from within this country.

To accomplish this we need to convince prospective migrants that this region, for all its faults, deserves to become, once again, a preferred destination for ambitious outsiders. It's a task that our local leaders, both in the business world and government, need to take seriously, rather than take comfort in the prospect of a more stable, and fundamentally stagnant, demographic future.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and a member of the editorial board of the Orange County Register. He is author of The City: A Global History and The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. His most recent study, The Rise of Postfamilialism, has been widely discussed and distributed internationally. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

This piece originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Photo by telwink