CSUN’s 19th annual Envisioning California Conference was held on Sept. 19 at the Skirball Cultural Center, convened by the Center for Southern California Studies at CSUN and the Center for California Studies at Cal State Sacramento.
Professionals from across Los Angeles and from various racial backgrounds came together to discuss and answer questions about this year’s theme, “Immigration in California: Conflict, Resolution, Transformation.”
Panel discussions focused on living together in a multicultural society, education, immigrants and their jobs, contributions to society and their access to health care.
In a breakout session titled “Justice for All,” panelists Isabel Alegria, Amir Hussain and Robin Toma, along with moderator Fernando Guerra, spoke about moving toward a society of inclusion rather than exclusion. Robin Toma, executive director of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, said the struggle for all Americans to feel included, regardless of race, must start with the authorities, especially the police department.
“How can you feel like you belong in society if you don’t feel like you can go to the police for protection?” Said Toma, after explaining a police mandate, Special Order 40, which prevents LAPD officers from obtaining immigration status from detained suspects. The mandate was passed in an effort to encourage undocumented immigrants to report crimes without fear of intimidation.
Amir Hussain, a professor at Loyola Marymount University, said people have to be more accepting in order for immigrants to feel included. He described an incident in 1994 when a Muslim mosque was built in Granada Hills.
“They didn’t want it to look like a mosque. They didn’t want domes. They didn’t want these people in their neighborhood,” Hussain said. “But there’s a Jewish community center right across the street. The question is: Does a synagogue raise property value, and does a mosque lower property value?”
Toma said that in order to progress, people’s mind-sets must be changed.
“When you first get on a train, there may only be a few people on and no one sitting next to you. But once you get to the next stop and more people get on, you’ll have to move your suitcase from the seat next to you and let someone sit down,” Toma said. “This is because just like you, they purchased a ticket for that train.”
Toma said the same concept applies to the U.S., where people have the same rights and should make room for one another no matter who emigrated to the country first.
Panelists pointed out two ways in which California can work toward changing negative views of immigrants: helping people to relate to one another on a human level by forming trust and educating residents of the things that immigrants have contributed.
“You don’t mind being in a crowded room full of people that you like,” Toma said. “The problem comes when there is density and diversity.”
“People still feel that immigrants use more services than they contribute,” said Isabel Alegria, communications director for the California Immigrants Policy Center. Alegria encouraged others to read her center’s publication, “Looking Forward – Immigrant Contributions to California.”
In his keynote speech, Hector Tobar, the Mexico City bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, compared the struggles of immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, to those of African American slaves.
“Just like slaves, immigrants live in the same place, work and contribute to society, but are still looked at as inferior,” Tobar said. “Many people believe that giving these people citizenship is tantamount to suicide.”
Tobar said because of similar struggles, it’s important to educate young Latino immigrants and American-born Latinos until they understand “the ground they stand on was paid for by African American blood.”
Panelists discussed immigration and the job market in California in a session titled “Jobs: Partners or competitors?”
Ruth Milkman said immigrants aren’t to blame for the deterioration of jobs and wages.
“The deterioration of wages in key industries in our own city preceded the influx of immigrants into those same industries,” said Milkman, director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA. “Deindustrialization, deregulation and deunionization are to blame.”
“In the 1970s and 1980s, employers decided they’d had enough of unions,” Milkman said. “Wages fell, benefits evaporated, working conditions declined and jobs became less desirable.”
“Many people feel that immigrants are to blame for these problems. If anything, I think they are the result,” Milkman said.
Maria Loya, director of public policy and advocacy for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, said two-fifths of residents in Los Angeles County don’t make enough money to meet their needs.
“When many of the immigrants came to the United States, they didn’t find the American Dream. They found the American nightmare,” Loya said.
The Rev. Eric Lee, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, said the issue isn’t immigrants taking jobs that historically were performed by blacks, but the creation of a low-wage working pool.
“If you find someone in line who’s willing to work for $10 an hour, you’re guaranteed to find someone who will work for $8 an hour with no benefits,” Lee said. “The challenge is, African Americans aren’t going to work for $5 an hour, and neither should anyone else.”
Lee said it’s necessary to make the U.S. a middle class country again, which can’t be done when there is “capitalism to the point of profiting at the demise of other people.”
The conference closed with a panel consisting of John Trasvi?a, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, Blair Taylor, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Urban League, and Pilar Marrero, political editor and columnist for La Opi?ion.
“I’m not very optimistic,” said Marrero when asked about where California stands on the issue of immigration. “I feel like we might even be moving backwards.”
The rest of the panel shared optimism about California’s future in guiding immigration policy and getting residents to understand immigration.
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