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Is Los Angeles Becoming a Third World City?

I remember this illuminating exchange a couple of years ago on ABC’s This Week between my Washington Post Writers Group colleagues, George Will, and Fareed Zakaria.

The subject: immigration. Zakaria submitted that immigrants — legal and illegal — were the backbone of the U.S. economy.

Nonsense, said Will. The real backbone was the people who worked at high-tech firms such as Microsoft, Intel, or IBM.

Yes, Zakaria responded, high-tech workers and other professionals do contribute a lot to the economy. But one of the major reasons they are in a position to do so is because, while they and their spouses labor in their white-collar world, someone is home taking care of the kids, mowing the lawn, making dinner, and cleaning the house. And, often, that person is an immigrant — sometimes legal, sometimes illegal, but an immigrant nonetheless.


That exchange came to mind recently when I heard about a new study of Los Angeles by the Washington DC-based Migration Policy Institute — one that has already prompted nativists and cynics to conclude that the nation’s second-largest city is the equivalent of a “Third World country.”

The report itself — titled, “Los Angeles on the Leading Edge: Immigration Integration Indicators and Their Policy Implications” — doesn’t make that claim. Its main point is that, with immigrants now accounting for more than one-third of the 9.9 million residents of Los Angeles County, Southern California is at the leading edge of national immigration trends. And thus, the report says, the region can serve as something of a policy laboratory for other U.S. communities that are seeing exponential growth in their immigrant communities.

Among the report’s findings: Nearly half the workforce in Los Angeles County is foreign-born; more than half of the students in the Los Angeles schools are the children of immigrants; and more than 40 percent of students English language learners. It concludes that both the public and the private sectors should do more to more fully integrate immigrants into the workplace, schools and civic life.

Those who can’t wait to compare Los Angeles to a “Third World country” should acknowledge how much the city benefits from immigrant labor. There are obviously the taxes — property, sales, municipal taxes — paid by immigrants, even those who are in the country illegally. But there is also an additional, more indirect, benefit that no one is willing to talk about.

Well, no one except Fareed Zakaria.

I lived in Los Angeles three different times in the 1990’s. Look at any industry in that metropolis, from restaurants to construction to professional sports. Whatever you choose, you’ll find workers — U.S. citizens — who are able to participate in the city’s workforce because they’re relying on immigrant labor at home.

Consider just one example: the entertainment industry, which, according to Southern California-based economists, contributes nearly $30 billion annually to the L.A. economy. Actors, writers, producers, directors, studio executives, stagehands and everyone in between are able to get up and go to work in the morning because someone is tending to the home-front. And it doesn’t stop there. When these people leave the movie lot — and go to breakfast, lunch or dinner — it is usually immigrants who park their car, take their order, cook their food, clean their tables and wash their dishes before sending these creative types back to work.

Many Americans enjoy their lifestyle but we’re not eager to share credit with those who help us maintain it. We like to think that we’ve earned everything we have, and that we’re juggling all our responsibilities single-handedly without help from anyone.

An army of low-skilled workers knows better.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer and a regular contributor to CNN.COM.