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Immigrants bring spice to Californian life

Immigration remains an explosive issue in Switzerland, a country with some of the most restrictive foreigner legislation in Europe.

But how is the issue dealt with in classic immigration countries, such as the United States? California is, for example, a magnet for Latin Americans, and once attracted many Swiss émigrés.

As part of its special on the historic waves of emigrations of Swiss-Italians, swissinfo.ch spoke to Tomás Jiménez, an immigration and minorities expert at Stanford University in California and the New America Foundation.

More than one in four residents of California – 27 per cent – was born outside the United States according to the 2000 census, which is more than double the US average. In Switzerland, the figure is 16 per cent.

swissinfo.ch: When immigration issues are debated in Switzerland, the Swiss are concerned about losing their jobs to foreigners, loss of culture, integration and crime. What are the concerns regarding immigration in California?

Tomás Jiménez: I think the primary concern of Californians – if they are concerned – has to do with culture. We see changes that take place in our schools, our neighbourhoods, our workplace: people speaking different languages, practising different religions, people who look different, and so that's what spurs reaction. To the extent there is a concern, I think it's over a sense that America or California is losing its way culturally.

But I would say most Californians actually enjoy the variety that comes with immigration. They enjoy going to different restaurants, listening to different music. California, for example, has some of the highest mixed marriage rates in all of the US.

swissinfo.ch: What about crime? Is the majority of crime blamed on recent immigrants?

T.J.: I think there is a perception that immigrants commit crime. But there is ample evidence that being an immigrant makes one far less likely to commit crime than someone born in the US.

Some people would say that one of the explanations for the incredible drop in crime rates in the past 30 years has to do with the fact that we've flooded the US with immigrants. Or put another way, we've flooded the country with a bunch of law-abiding people.

Now, the children of immigrants are a different story – partly because of a difficult process of adjustment. They have a foot in both worlds and there is an inability of parents to monitor them. But still, overall, immigration does not contribute to an increase in crime.

swissinfo.ch: What kind of approach does the California school system take to integrate children of immigrants so they are on an equal footing with those raised in English-speaking households?

T.J.: In California we used to have a fairly robust bilingual education programme but in 1998, with proposition 227, California voters elected to end bilingual education.

swissinfo.ch: How do you envisage improving the integration in schools?

T.J.: I think we could start with parents. English language classes are over-enrolled. They're not terribly accessible to a lot of parents from other countries and the language barrier prevents parents from becoming fully involved in their kids' education.

swissinfo.ch: What else impedes integration?

T.J.: We don't often talk about it in terms of integration, but it is legal status. It's very difficult for people to feel like they've integrated into society when they have to worry every day about being deported.

swissinfo.ch: What are the main differences between California's current immigrant population and those who came here from Europe three or four generations ago?

T.J.: From my perspective, it has to do with legal status. Nearly a third of our immigrant population today is illegal. That makes integration very difficult for roughly a third of our population and the children growing up in those households. And that's something that an earlier wave of immigrants didn't have to deal with.

It's not that they chose to come the "right way". The laws back then meant all you had to do was show up and prove that you didn't have some rare form of a communicable disease and then you were free to enter the US. Not a lot of people realise that. Not until 1921 were there quotas on the number of people who could come from particular European countries. And by 1921, most immigration from Europe had largely subsided.

swissinfo.ch: You also favour the translation of immigrants' qualifications. But California right now is in dire financial straits, so how can the state afford to pay for everything you are advocating?

T.J.: I think for the long-term fiscal, political and social health of the state, this is an investment we should be making. If you look at California's demographic profile, there are two bulges. One is an old, native born, white population. The other is a largely young, immigrant, and second-generation population.

And so it would behove the ageing baby boomers to spend a little more of their taxpayer dollars to fund education, to fund the sort of integration programmes I'm talking about and to pay for good schools to train the next generation to help those folks have a nice old age.

Dale Bechtel in Palo Alto, California, swissinfo.ch

Switzerland immigration statistics

86.5% of Switzerland's permanent foreign resident population is of European origin, two-thirds of whom are nationals of a European Union country or a European Free Trade Association state.

The largest group of foreigners is from Italy (18.2%), followed by nationals of Germany (12.7%), Serbia and Montenegro (11.7%) and Portugal (11.4%). The proportion of non-European nationals has increased by seven percentage points since 1980 to reach 13.4% today.

Source: Swiss Federal Statistics Office

California immigration statistics

Between 1970 and 2006, the number of California residents born abroad has increased more than fivefold, from 1.8 million to 9.9 million.

California has a much higher share of immigrants than the United States as a whole (27% vs. 13%).

The leading countries of origin are Mexico (4.4 million), the Philippines (750,000) and China (659,000).

Source: Public Policy Institute of California

Tomás Jiménez

Tomás Jiménez is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stanford University and an Irvine fellow at the New America Foundation think tank.

His research and teaching focus on immigration, assimilation, social mobility and identity.

He is the author of "From Newcomers to Americans: An Integration Policy for a Nation of Immigrants," in the forthcoming book, Mandate for Change.

He is also author of the forthcoming book, Replensished Ethnicity: Mexican Americans, Immigration and Identity. (Univ. of California Press, 2010).

He is often cited in major US media on immigration issues.



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