Latino Immigrant Issues in Los Angeles

Given that nearly one half of Los Angeles County's population is Latino, it would seem that such a large portion of the population would translate into political and social power. To a degree that is true. But behind the numbers and the data there is substantial evidence of discrimination against Latinos, in jobs, in education, and in housing. Also, the history of the major political institutions in Los Angeles reflect blatant discrimination against the Latino community. Indeed, Latinos had to fight through the courts for fair political representation. This paper will identify and review those instances of ethnic and cultural bias.

Yesterday and Today -- Latinos in Los Angeles

In 1960, Latinos (also known as "Hispanics" although the more contemporary term is "Latino") made up about 10% of the population of Los Angeles County (Decker, 2010). According to the U.S. Census (2009), Latinos comprise 47.7% of the population of Los Angeles County, which has a population of 9,848,011. Latinos make up 32.9% of nearby Orange County, part of the sprawling megalopolis known as "L.A." The city of Los Angeles has a population of 3,849,378 (2006 U.S. Census) and Latino citizens make up 46.5% of the city's population.

The political and cultural clout that Latinos have in Los Angeles is impressive, albeit given that nearly half of the city's population is Latino, it stands to reason that the Latino culture would be able to wield significant power. For many years, there was just one Latino that held "unquestioned public power," according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. That individual was Edward R. Roybal, the first Latino to be elected to the Los Angeles City Council (Decker, 2010). Today Latinos can boast that they indeed have a power base in Los Angeles. The mayor of Los Angeles is Antonio Villaragosa; the new Archbishop of the sprawling Los Angeles Catholic Diocese is Mexican-born Jose Gomez; the sheriff of Los Angeles County is Lee Baca; several members of the City Council are Latino and three of the 7 members of the Los Angeles Board of Education are Latino.

Given the growing population of Latino immigrants and U.S.-born Latinos, there was a strong desire in Los Angeles for the Latino representation in the halls of power. But the individuals that held power had no intention of being fair and simply sharing power. In fact, efforts by Latinos to win elections "were thwarted to political lines drawn to diminish their heft," Decker writes. The powers in charge of Los Angeles City Council had drawn district boundaries so as to cut off any chances of Latinos being elected; after a long legal battle new lines were drawn and they called it a "Latino district."

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors also drew district boundaries to attempt to stifle the Latino vote, but a federal court in 1990 decided that "the board had drawn its lines to intentionally discriminate against Latinos," Decker continues in the Los Angeles Times. The first Latino Supervisor, elected in 1991, was Gloria Molina. She remains in office today.

Proposition 187 -- Negative Attitudes Towards Immigration

The political and social ramifications of Proposition 187 provide important background in terms of how immigrants have been perceived, treated and manipulated by politicians and voters in Los Angeles and in California. The main purpose of 187 (on the ballot in 1994) was to a) ban enrollment in public schools and colleges; b) deny "non-emergency public health care (that included prenatal and postnatal services); and c) cut off any and all social welfare services that are directed toward "troubled youths, the elderly, the blind, and others with special needs" (Hovey, et al., 2000, p. 160).

Those who supported Proposition 187 put forth the argument that undocumented immigrants not only hurt the state's economy but that they were costing taxpayers "in excess of 5 billion dollars a year" (Hovey, p. 160). Immigrants were drawn to Los Angeles and to California to take advantage of the "welfare state," proponents argued. And immigrants were responsible for "lowering the quality of public education" because classrooms were becoming crowded, the argument went. Moreover, "undocumented immigrants have not assimilated into mainstream society as successfully as the previous European immigrants," Hovey explains, recounting the positions that the promoters of Proposition 187 took. Because the immigrants (mostly from Mexico) hold cultural values that are "not compatible with mainstream values and institutions," those values in turn "lead to school failure and social problems" that have a "disproportionate contribution to crime" (Hovey, p. 160).

Clearly this ballot measure was based on strong anti-immigration feelings among voters, and the intention was to blame Mexicans for overcrowded schools, for the economic downturn -- the "anxieties over diminishing economic expectations" -- and for a "broken justice system" (Hovey, p. 160). The law (which passed with 57% of the vote) would require law enforcement and social service and health agencies to "report suspected undocumented immigrants to the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS)" (Hovey, p. 161). However, there was no definition for what was to be the basis for suspicion; was it the color of a person's skin, or the last name? The law would have opened the door to racial profiling, opponents argued, in a way very similar to the recent law passed in Arizona.

Proposition 187 was later found to be unconstitutional by the California State Supreme Court, but it served a purpose in the eyes and minds of Latino immigrants and it provided ample material for social scientists; it was clear that the public harbored very negative attitudes were towards immigrants. The mass media certainly helped convey the message that many of the problems in Los Angeles and in California could be blamed on immigrants. Hovey offers an example of news reports prior to the election; the co-author of Proposition 187 was Ron Prince, who used an old west theme in his interview in the Los Angeles Times. "You (the voter) are the posse…and Proposition 187 is the rope" (Hovey, p. 170).

Supporters of Proposition 187 "crafted an image of a state literally drowning in undocumented immigrants from Mexico," according to David E. Hayes-Bautista in his book La nueva California: Latinos in the Golden State. Television commentators often mentioned that "…up to half of all Latinos in Los Angeles County were 'probably' undocumented immigrants," Hayes-Bautista explains (p. 127). There were charges that "…over two-thirds of births in Los Angeles County hospitals are to illegal aliens" and even California's liberal U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein -- who later said she voted against 187 -- ran a TV commercial that contributed to the "drowning in immigrants" theme, Hayes-Baustista continued on page 127).

The commercial opened with some "grainy black-and-white hand-held video footage of a few people on foot darting between the lines of cars" that were waiting to get into the U.S. At the San Ysidro border crossing. A voice blared over the video, "And they keep coming! Two thousand each night!" Another commercial claimed that five thousand illegal immigrants were crossing into California every night. And so many voters went to the polls believing that "millions and millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico were crossing the border and signing up immediately for welfare," Hayes Baustista explain (p. 127). Besides overcrowded schools and overwhelmed health services, Mexican immigrants were also blamed for: a) "water shortages during California's periodic droughts"; b) "clogged freeways"; c) wildfires that plague southern California every year; and d) "high taxes" (Hayes-Baustista, p. 128).

Housing and Residential Issues for Latinos in Los Angeles

It is likely that the most brutally unfair and discriminatory policy the city of Los Angeles ever launched against Latinos was the battle over Chavez Ravine, which started in 1949. Chavez Ravine was an independent Mexican-American community within the City of Los Angeles, a couple miles from downtown. The citizens grew their own food, supported their own schools on their 300 acres. But in July 1950 all the residents of Chavez Ravine were given letters by the city informing them that "they would have to sell their homes" so that land could be made available to build thousands of new housing units (Public Broadcast System, 2010). Money had been made available to Los Angeles through the Federal Housing Act of 1949, and since the Chavez Ravine neighborhood had been called "an eyesore" and since the Latinos living there had little political leverage, their community was targeted for the bulldozers (PBS).

The city used the power of eminent domain and bought the houses; some structures just stood vacant for a few years; others were burned to the ground (used as practice sites by local fire departments). Due to legal actions and political arguing, no new housing projects were built in Chavez Ravine through the 1950s. But when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved west to Los Angeles and needed land for a stadium, Chavez Ravine was offered to the team by Mayor Norris Poulson (PBS). This caused additional controversy because the city had spent a lot of time and money preparing…