When a change to federal law meant many immigrants would lose access to certain welfare benefits, Santa Clara County faced having to absorb thousands of residents in local safety net programs. So the county pursued a way to keep immigrants eligible for federal benefits: citizenship.
Since 1996, Santa Clara County has encouraged legal permanent residents to become naturalized citizens and has worked to integrate immigrants in the region. A new report by the University of Southern California's Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration says those efforts are lessons for the rest of California.
"There's a clear need for a statewide body to invest in immigrant integration," Vanessa Carter, a data analyst at the center and an author of the report, said in a call with reporters. "This body could help coordinate immigrant integration efforts and, in the end, could help build a more resilient California."
Immigrants constitute about 27 percent of California's population, and nearly half of the children in the state have at least one immigrant parent, according to the center. How successfully immigrants and their families integrate in California "is something in everyone's interest," said Manuel Pastor, director of the center.
Santa Clara ranks first out of 10 major regions in the state in immigrant integration, according to the report. The analysis, released last week and the first of its kind, measured immigrants' economic mobility and civic participation. It also considered how welcoming their adopted regions were, based on indicators such as the availability of immigrant-serving organizations, civic infrastructure for naturalization and availability of English courses.
Researchers used 28 indicators – including demographic and economic census figures, test scores from the California High School Exit Exam, school performance data and news media coverage of immigration – to compare immigrants with their U.S.-born, non-Hispanic white counterparts in each region.
Pastor said that while some regional variations in part reflect differences in the composition of immigrants, the immigrant population throughout California generally is very diverse. Regional differences also were the product of local policies and practices, he said.
The analysis found the smallest economic gaps between immigrants and their native-born white counterparts in Santa Clara, San Diego and Sacramento counties. Immigrants' economic standing over time improved most in San Joaquin, Orange and Santa Clara counties. And although San Francisco and Los Angeles were among the most welcoming regions in the state, immigrants there faced grim economic situations.
That San Joaquin offered a rosier economic trajectory than San Francisco was not surprising, researchers said. Immigrants who arrive in San Francisco and make economic gains might leave for more affordable locales, while others who are more affluent or poor may remain so and stay in the city.
"The very high cost of living showed us that immigrants are having trouble around economics" in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Carter said.
On a five-point scale, only Santa Clara scored perfectly in one category: civic engagement. The score is a reflection of the county's high rate of naturalization and English-speaking immigrants. But because regions' scores are relative to one another, researchers said there is still room for improvement.
In Santa Clara, 46 percent of adults are immigrants, and nearly 1 in 4 is a naturalized immigrant. By comparison, in Fresno, which ranked lowest in civic engagement, 29 percent of adults are immigrants, and 9 percent are naturalized.
Santa Clara encourages all eligible immigrants to become citizens, said Teresa Castellanos, lead program coordinator for the county's Immigration Relations and Integration Services.
Castellanos' office holds an annual event in 14 languages to teach immigrants about and help them through the naturalization process. The biggest barriers to naturalization are lack of understanding of the process and language, she said.
"Language-specific programs are about not just luxury, but about access," Castellanos said. "If people don't understand what exists, they can't access it."
The county maintains an online list of classes teaching citizenship and English as a second language. In recent years, the number of classes has shrunk from 1,200 to about 700 or fewer, Castellanos said. At the same time, the number of immigrants seeking those classes has increased.
English learners are falling behind academically in every region of California, the report found. Researchers said immigrants need greater opportunities to learn English in the state.
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This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.