We The People: Helping Newcomers Become Californians

Report #166, June 2002


To ensure its future prosperity, California needs to fortify efforts to help immigrants become self-reliant and responsible community members, the Little Hoover Commission concluded Tuesday in a report to the Governor and Legislature.

California has 8.6 million first-generation immigrants – representing one in four Californians. Immigrant workers make up approximately one-third of the state’s labor force.  And one in 10 school children are foreign-born.

The vast majority of immigrant families in California eventually become integrated into their local community, the state’s economy and civic affairs.  But existing public programs, the Commission found, are not aligned to effectively help newcomers become self-reliant and responsible community members. Less than half of all immigrants in California become citizens.  Nearly half of immigrants from Mexico have difficulty communicating in English.  And immigrants are more likely to live in poverty than U.S. born residents.

“California has not come to terms with the extraordinary challenges of a large population of immigrants,” said Commission Chairman Michael Alpert.  “By not squarely dealing with these challenges, the State will ultimately increase public costs, and delay the enormous benefits that immigration can bring to individuals and communities.”

Immigrants have access to a variety of services and benefits, but eligibility laws are often confusing and differ from program to program.  Moreover, while immigrants are eligible for some services, those services may not be the most critical to achieving economic independence or to bolstering their contributions to their communities. Many immigrants are barred from receiving job training, health insurance and other services.  Under California law, undocumented immigrant children who are abused are ineligible for state-funded foster care services.  But the State provides all immigrants access to public colleges and universities at publicly subsidized rates.

In its report, We the People: Helping Newcomers Become Californians, the Commission recommends that the State establish clear expectations for immigrants – such as obeying the law, paying taxes and caring for their family members – and encourage them to become involved in civic affairs and establish citizenship.  To make the best use of available resources, the Commission urged the State to focus existing public programs to accelerate the financial and civic integration of those immigrants who make a commitment to become citizens.

The Commission recommended the creation of the Golden State Residency Program. Participants would be expected to learn English, be employed or in job training, pay taxes, care for family members and be engaged in civic affairs.  In turn, they would have access to public services equal to citizens, and priority access over non-participants.

Beyond access, all public programs need to redouble efforts to make sure they are providing services in ways that are effective for immigrants who are learning English, are working multiple jobs, are unfamiliar with bureaucracies or lack trust in government.  In short, California should make a strong commitment to those immigrants who have made a strong commitment to California.

The enormous task of integrating immigrants from a variety of cultures is greatly complicated by the large number of undocumented immigrants.  The U.S. Census Bureau estimates there are 2 million undocumented immigrants in California, most in families with legal immigrants and U.S. citizens.  Many are employed, pay taxes and have children in school.

The Commission recognized that many community institutions – including business, education and law enforcement – do not distinguish among immigrants based on their legal status.  And much of the problem is the result of federal immigrant laws that are not meeting the needs of California’s businesses or its communities.

Because so many undocumented immigrants are effectively Californians, the Commission concluded that until federal immigration laws are aligned with California’s needs, undocumented immigrants should be eligible for the residency program.

The Commission also urged policy-makers to advocate for reforms to federal laws to ensure an adequate number of immigrants to support the economy and naturalization policies that encourage citizenship.  The federal government also should pay a greater share of the costs associated with community-based programs to ensure immigrants successfully integrate into American life.

The Little Hoover Commission is a bipartisan and independent state agency charged with recommending ways to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of state programs.  The Commission’s recommendations are sent to the Governor and the Legislature.  To obtain acopy of the report, contact the Commission or visit its Web site: www.lhc.ca.gov.