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Our Future Is in Their Hands

How will society be transformed by the presence, skills and actions of immigrants? USC College has become the convening place for academic, community and public policy leaders to conduct and discuss research on the changing landscape of Los Angeles and the nation.

Photo credit Joseph Voves.
Photo credit Joseph Voves.

Manuel Pastor calls it the “game-changer.” In Los Angeles County, one-third of the residents are immigrants, nearly half the workforce is foreign-born, two-thirds of children have at least one immigrant parent, and 90 percent of those youngsters are U.S.-born.

“How these children and their parents fare will determine the future of the region,” said Pastor, professor of American studies and ethnicity in USC College. “I find that when I use this as a starting point, it changes the debate.”

And reshaping the dialogue around immigration is what the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) is all about.

Directed by Pastor and housed in the College, the center’s aim is to provide a forum in which members of the academe and the community engage in remaking the framework for understanding immigrants and immigrant integration in California and the nation.

“Somehow the spirit of America, of being a welcoming place, has been lost in the debates of the last decade or so,” Pastor said. “We are really trying to create a space that will support solid research, but also a place where community organizers and leaders can come and have open discussions about what it means to be a changing Los Angeles and how we understand our changing world as well.”

Building upon the USC Provost’s Initiative on Immigration and Integration launched in 2006, the vision for CSII began to develop following a 2007–08 speaker series organized by Professor of Sociology Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo, who chaired a university-wide faculty committee executing the initiative that also provided seed grants for faculty research projects.

“We invited a half-dozen nationally recognized scholars on immigrant integration and they were honestly among the most well-attended talks I have seen at USC in my 20 years here,” Hondagneu- Sotelo said. “These events brought together undergraduates, graduate students, professors and even staff, which I think had to do with the timeliness of the topic. It was an exciting moment.

Then in April 2008, after nearly a year of planning by Pastor, Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning and demography in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, and others, this momentum continued when approximately 350 academics, policymakers and community leaders, including L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, assembled at USC to discuss a strategic research agenda for successful immigrant integration. The conference, “Immigrant Integration and the American Future: Lessons from and for California,” also served as the platform to formally announce the center.

“The university’s goal for quite some time has been one of engagement. Immigrant integration really allows us to exercise that goal and do so in a location — Los Angeles — that leads the country on the topic,” said Myers, who co-directed CSII with Pastor until June 2010. “So creating a center that focuses on immigrant integration is a natural fit with both USC’s location and its ethos.”

“It was a really interesting event because it established USC as a convening place for community and civic leaders and public policy actors around this issue and around a very different approach,” added Pastor, who also directs the College’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) that provided early infrastructural support for the center.


Manuel Pastor, professor of American studies and ethnicity, directs the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration and the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity, both housed in USC College. Photo credit Carlos Puma.

Understanding this “very different approach” begins with why CSII chose the term “immigrant integration” as well as how the center defines it.

Pastor pointed out that “immigration policy” tends to beget arguments around legality and border control. “Immigrant rights” fails to resonate with many because the United States has a tradition of civil rights, which are based in citizenship. Immigrant integration, on the other hand, tends to be more forward-thinking.

“Immigrant integration looks at long-term processes of change, both for the people who have arrived and for the society that they enter into and help to transform by their presence, by their skills and by their actions,” he said.

While the term “immigrant integration” is sometimes associated with sacrificing one’s cultural and ethnic identity to assume a role in mainstream American society, Pastor believes the center’s new definition not only reflects the nuances of an increasingly globalized world, but offers a three-pronged meaning that is specific and measurable.

“When we speak about immigrant integration, what we’re really saying is improved economic mobility for, enhanced civic participation by, and receiving society openness to immigrants,” he said.

“Economic mobility is in many ways at the heart of the American dream. Those who may arrive in the U.S. with limited skills and start at the bottom of society are told that, if they work hard, they will move up over time.”

The center is investigating whether such progress is a reality and determining what efforts are necessary to ensure that the quality of life for immigrants and their families is improving.

In addition, CSII is exploring ways to promote “civic participation” so that immigrants move through a process of becoming not just citizens, but active citizens who are involved in decision-making for their schools, unions, communities and government.

“Receiving society openness to immigrants” may be harder to assess, but Pastor explained that it can still be gauged by reviewing current policies and the types of welcome afforded to new arrivals. In some places, such as Silicon Valley, he noted how significant attempts toward immigrant integration are demonstrating how immigrants of many different skill levels and ethnicities are contributing to the area’s economy.

“One of the things we need to understand is that when we are a more welcoming society, we’re able to take advantage of the assets and skills that people bring,” he said. “We’re able to build on those to make a more productive society.”


A day in the field with Manuel Pastor. Video by Mira Zimet.

In addressing all three of these dimensions to immigrant integration, the center focuses on two objectives: creating what Pastor calls a “scaffold of research” for productive conversation among policymakers and the public, and establishing USC as a central convening player. Instead of concentrating solely on either disseminating scholarship and data or engaging the community, CSII is carving out its own place among the country’s research centers on immigration.

Pastor attributed much of the specific convening vision to Myers. “Dowell saw that there was a sweet spot in the middle for a center that would be tethered in scholarship, have ready data capacities and be publicly engaged,” Pastor said. “There really isn’t a center occupying that particular spot in California, and only a couple operate this way in the country.”

Myers acknowledged that remaining in “the middle” continues to be one of the challenges CSII faces, but he and Pastor are confident that through the projects the center chooses, a balance will be maintained.

After CSII’s formation was announced in Spring 2008, Pastor and Myers’ first move was to begin working across USC’s many schools to unite faculty members, even those who may not have initially considered their research as falling under the topic of immigration.

“I think it’s very interesting that much as the term ‘immigrant integration’ means trying to think about the two-way processes — how society changes but also how migrants change — integrating these efforts into the center is trying to forge new ways for people to collaborate across their school boundaries,” Pastor said. “This was a community of faculty waiting to be put together.”

“USC has had leading scholars in the social sciences since the 1920s and some of America’s top scholars in the field today are from USC,” Myers said. “So to establish a center that pulls these individuals together and provides a common meeting place was critical.”

CSII introduced the Community Scholars Series to encourage conversations among the university’s scholars as well as foster closer ties with community and civic leaders. USC faculty, along with those from other institutions including the University of California, Los Angeles and The City University of New York, join leaders from organizations such as the Black Alliance for Just Immigration and the Asian Pacific American Legal Center to explore an array of subjects ranging from immigration and President Barack Obama’s administration to hometown associations’ role in immigrant integration, to name a few.

But as Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow Juan De Lara observed, the exchange of ideas at these events develops into much more.

“The center provides an institutional home that connects faculty through dialogue and discussion,” said De Lara, who holds a joint appointment in CSII and the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity. “Faculty are incorporated into on-the-ground issues because they form relationships with community organizations and policymakers. The center harnesses individual faculty research and creates something greater, more effective.”

This spring De Lara presented his yet-to-be-published work on the regional labor market in Riverside and San Bernardino counties as part of CSII’s faculty seminars, which pair junior and senior USC faculty members in sharing their unpublished work with faculty from various USC departments and schools. Once De Lara outlined his current research project, attendees were invited to ask questions and give feedback.

“There’s a generative force when you bring faculty together around these seminars,” De Lara said. “We are able to move beyond our individual work and into a broader discussion about where our collective research efforts may yield more informed and important results.”

Expanding upon CSII’s Community Scholars Series and faculty  seminars, Myers spearheaded the conference “Immigrant Intergenerational Mobility: Methods, Interpretations and Policy Implications.” The day-long program sponsored by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the James Irvine Foundation in October 2009 gathered top scholars from institutions in Southern California and throughout the country to evaluate the successes and failures of second-generation immigrants’ economic, political and social incorporation in the U.S.

Not only have faculty been eager to be brought together by the center, but community leaders off campus have been flocking to events and relying upon CSII for its expertise.

The California Community Foundation (CCF) was one of the first organizations to turn to the center for guidance when it wanted to determine the best way to invest its funds toward ensuring immigrants’ successful integration in L.A. County. CSII first analyzed county data to ascertain who makes up L.A.’s immigrant population. Then they assembled six focus groups composed of different stakeholders: immigrant and refugee rights advocates; business leaders and workforce developers; funders and foundation officers; city planners and elected officials; labor and community organizers; and interethnic coalition builders. As they talked through the data with CSII staff, the groups weighed in on how this translated to their respective constituencies and offered their thoughts on what would most help immigrants in Southern California.

Rhonda Ortiz, CSII project manager, recalled how almost across the board every group expressed that to truly make progress with issues of immigrant integration, a roundtable or task force with representatives from all the various sectors in L.A. was needed.

The subsequent report that Pastor, Ortiz and their center colleagues submitted led the foundation to draft a funding strategy that included the creation of such a group. CSII was asked to step in as the facilitator and thus the CCF Council on Immigrant Integration was born. Made up of about 35 participants that include the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce, the UCLA Labor Center, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, the South Asian Network, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), and the L.A. Mayor’s Office, the council seeks to foster alliances across sectors to tackle policy development. They meet quarterly to discuss topics such as the economy and its effects on immigrants, the 2010 census, communication and how immigration is talked about, and immigrants’ access to healthcare.

“People have been extremely engaged and coming to every meeting,” Ortiz said. “We’ve just completed our first year and people are really into it and making good connections.”

One such member is David Rattray, a 1982 MBA graduate of the USC Marshall School of Business and now senior vice president of education and workforce development for the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce. The thoughtful conversations and unique perspectives on immigrant integration offered by the council’s participants have helped Rattray form deeper relationships with local leaders and provided valuable direction on how to best advance the chamber’s goal of improving Pre-K through 12 public education and access to post-secondary education for all L.A. students.

“Immigrant integration is an issue that often lends itself to a lot of polarization,” said Rattray, who is also president and executive director of UNITE-LA, a nonprofit organization that seeks to create business and community partnerships with schools to support an effective public education system in L.A.

“It’s really helpful to diffuse that division and have a more enlightened discussion and see if we as a larger community can develop an understanding of how we can create a better shared agenda. The council supports this cause with the idea that there’s a much greater common interest than is otherwise perceived in the daily dialogue of the politics of the community and within the context of national politics.”

Along with encouraging open discussions, CSII has also recognized its role in delivering data to the public that is based on a broader sense of scholarship and reflective of a fuller picture of local and national debates. Their “Creating a New Voice for Immigrant Integration” project, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, has established a ready-response mechanism that provides a repository of solid data and accessible analysis on California’s immigrant population to government entities, funders, media and others.

This project helped CSII and the California Immigrant Policy Center to team up earlier this year to produce the report, “Looking Forward: Immigrant Contributions to the Golden State,” which details how immigrants’ successes are intertwined with six of California’s powerful regional economies. The Associated Press and newspapers, including the Fresno Bee and the San Jose Mercury News, were quick to take notice and disseminate the findings.

CHIRLA sought out the center’s scholarly resources to evaluate the economic outcome if undocumented workers in California were legalized. The report, “The Economic Benefits of Immigrant Authorization in California,” considers the state’s more than 1.8 million unauthorized Latino adults and how their legalization could lead to higher wages, increased consumer spending and tax revenue, and job creation.

Angelica Salas, executive director of CHIRLA, then distributed the results to California’s congressional representatives and senators to help inform their decision-making.

“I was in a meeting with Senator Barbara Boxer in Washington, D.C., in which we asked that she help us be a leader for comprehensive immigration reform,” Salas recalled. “I handed her the CSII report and she brought it close to her chest and explained, ‘This is exactly what we need as legislators to make the argument that comprehensive immigration reform is good for the economy and benefits all of California.’ This reaction from our elected officials is exactly why this report continues to be so important to the work of CHIRLA.”

Most recently, CSII released “A State Resilient: Immigrant Integration and California’s Future” to counter a June 2010 report by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) that offered a bleak forecast for California’s economy and labeled it the “least educated” state in the country.

By focusing on aspects of the interaction between immigration and education that the CIS report left unexamined, Pastor and his CSII colleagues found that while inequality has indeed risen in California this is perhaps more closely tied to the changing nature of the U.S. economy than to the presence of immigrants as the CIS authors claimed.

Another critical focus for CSII has been assisting civic institutions, particularly those that have traditionally served L.A.’s African American communities, adjust to the changing demographics around them. For example, the center is working with the nearby Second Baptist Church, whose members are primarily African American, to support programs and advocacy efforts relevant to the needs of the surrounding neighborhood, which is now about 88 percent Latino.

Assistant Professor of Sociology Veronica Terriquez, along with CSII staff, collaborated with the church and Esperanza Community Housing Corporation to structure focus groups, design a neighborhood survey, and collect and analyze more than 500 responses from residents.

“Through our research we have learned about the different types of educational programs and institutional resources needed in the community, as well as local residents’ interests in working together to address shared concerns,” Terriquez said. “Not only has this valuable information furthered communication between Latino and African American stakeholders and area residents, but it has also helped develop ties between Esperanza, an organization with a strong track record of serving Latino immigrants, and Second Baptist, which has a long history of advocating for the rights of African Americans.”

With support from the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, CSII is investigating how its research and policy analysis can be used in such projects to advance immigrant integration while encouraging multi-racial alliances. In particular, the center aims to identify ways to build coalitions between immigrants and African Americans that are based on shared common issues rather than race relations alone.

“In all our work, we’re looking at immigrants, their families, their communities,” Ortiz said. “It’s a two-way street. We want to make sure that native-born populations understand the contributions immigrants are making so they can work together. That way you’re really focusing on the issues, like affordable housing, that affect everybody.”

Having secured approximately $650,000 in funding since its inception in 2008, the center is working to firmly establish itself within California policy circles with a range of projects that demonstrate how crucial the intersection of scholarship, data and engagement is in framing the immigration debate.

“The center’s mission recognizes the incontrovertible fact that immigrants will continue to make significant contributions to building and strengthening L.A. and our country,” said Gabriel Sandoval, former deputy legal counsel to Mayor Villaraigosa and director of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs. “The center’s pioneering work under the leadership of Dr. Pastor serves as an invaluable resource for local, state and federal policymakers and elected officials.”

Pastor hopes that as leaders at all levels increasingly take notice of and rely on the center’s efforts, a new story around immigrants and immigrant integration will be carved out that ensures a better future for L.A. and urban America.

“This is a moment of remaking ourselves, of remaking this country and of remaking this story,” Pastor said. “By helping to create a research scaffold and provide a convening place, the center is working to ground this new narrative in reality as well as an optimistic vision of our interwoven destinies.”

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Ange-Marie Hancock is associate professor of political science in USC College and associate director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII). Dowell Myers is professor of urban planning and demography in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development and CSII's former co-director.

Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration Leadership News

This fall, Associate Professor of Political Science Ange-Marie Hancock joined the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) as associate director. Having played an integral role in the center’s formation and first few years, Dowell Myers, professor of urban planning and demography in the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development, stepped down as co-director in June. He continues his work with the center as an affiliate faculty member.

“Dowell’s contributions to the start-up of CSII were invaluable,” said Manuel Pastor, the center’s director. “His pathbreaking book, Immigrants and Boomers, provided much of the center’s framing around the mutual benefits of immigrant integration and it was his strategy for combining data, analysis and engagement that has guided the way we have done our work.” 

As one of the faculty members most engaged in CSII-sponsored activities, Hancock was a natural choice for the new position, Pastor said. “Ange-Marie combines a brilliant intellect, an abiding interest in the intersections and integration of peoples and movements, and strong organizational and leadership skills,” he said.

Hancock, who joined the Department of Political Science in 2008, examines intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality politics and their impact on public policy. A globally recognized scholar in the field, she has served as an international expert in American politics for the U.S. Department of State as well as during the 2008 presidential election, and is frequently quoted in media outlets including The New York Times. 

Her forthcoming book, Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics (Palgrave Macmillan, January 2011), focuses on the development of intersectional solidarity — that is, an ability to find common ground across multiple types of difference — as a method of political engagement for individuals, groups and policy practitioners in United States politics.

“I believe deeply in the center’s mission to provide 1) the highest quality research and 2) the opportunity to change the narrative surrounding immigration through dialogues that include quality opportunities for people not just to speak, but to genuinely listen to each other,” Hancock said. “These two aspects of our mission are what I’m most excited about working on at the local, national and international levels in the coming years.”


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Fall 2010/Winter 2011 issue