Careful What You Wish For: Here’s What California Would Look Like Without Illegal Immigrants

Citizens of the Golden State love complaining about undocumented immigrants, but the state would collapse without them.

Justin Sullivan/Getty

On the subject of illegal immigration, the nation’s most populous state may also be the most hypocritical. Despite the fact that there is so much to do in California—so many leisure activities, in fact, that one can ski and surf in the same day—many residents have over the years developed a rather unproductive hobby. They love to complain about effects of illegal immigration, either real or imagined, as much as anyone else in the country.

It’s the usual list of gripes that one usually hears from uninhibited but uninformed hosts on talk radio. We Californians claim that the undocumented take jobs, lower wages, ruin neighborhoods, crowd schools, overrun hospitals, commit crimes, usurp public services, and pollute the environment. We don’t dare say what’s really bugging us—that illegal immigration is fueling a new demographic reality in a state where whites are now the minority and nonwhites make up the majority, and where nearly 4 out of every 10 residents is Hispanic.

The phenomenon of whites becoming the statistical minority is expected to occur in the entire United States by 2043, according to the most recent projections. That change has already happened in California. And it’s the aftereffects that many of the state’s residents—especially those who are white—are really anxious about.

Here’s what they don’t seem very troubled about: the fact that illegal immigration has become a cash cow for California. A recent report by researchers at the University of Southern California, for example, says immigrants who are in California illegally make up nearly 10 percent of the state’s workers and contribute $130 billion annually to its gross domestic product.

Growing up in the rich farmland of Central California, I’ve known for sometime that the agriculture industry had become completely dependent on immigrant labor—some of it from legal immigrants, but much of it from the undocumented. And what an industry it is, producing more than $45 billion a year in revenue and supplying more than half the produce consumed in the United States.

The study found that the estimated 2.6 million immigrants who are living in California illegally account for as much as 38 percent of the agriculture industry. Farming insiders put the figure at over 50 percent. Illegal immigrants also constitute at least 14 percent of the construction industry. You’ll also find them well represented in the hospitality industry, landscaping industry, and just about every other line of work in the state that requires breaking a sweat.

The study, which was conducted in conjunction with the California Immigrant Policy Center, was based on Census data and other statistics, including figures from the Department of Labor and the Department of Homeland Security.

There was no mention of the costs of illegal immigration, and they’re significant. Hospitals, jails, and schools all cost money to run, and they’re all being used by the undocumented. But Americans are always talking about the cost of illegal immigration. It’s about time that someone dissected the benefit.

Californians, who are always at each other’s throats over one thing or another, will now feud over the study. But they can agree on this much: It’s silly and pointless to complain about a wound that is, in many ways, self-inflicted. Why are there so many illegal immigrants in California? Simple: It’s because there are so many Californians holding up “help wanted” signs.

This state wasn’t always so divided. I’ve lived in the Golden State for three-fourths of my life, and I can remember a more relaxed time when I was growing up. Back then, in the 1970s, the state wasn’t at war with its own instincts. People came up from Mexico, mostly young men in their 20s, in a more or less orderly fashion. They worked all summer and picked peaches, lettuce, or avocados. They would go home to Mexico twice a year—for Mother’s Day, and Christmas—loading up on merchandise from department stores. Back home, they’d play Santa, handing out gifts to family members and bragging about California’s generous bounty. Unknowingly, they would inspire younger generations of adventure seekers to venture north.

In the 1980s, when President Reagan signed the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, it was at least partially at the urging of California farm groups who, by then, had helped Reagan win four elections—two for California governor, and two for president. One of the major proponents of what the bill’s detractors called “amnesty” was California Republican Sen. Pete Wilson, who enjoyed the support of immigration-loving Golden State big business.

In the 1990s, things changed for the worse. As the economy soured, Californians began to think in terms of limited resources and came to see migration as a zero sum game. By then, Wilson had been elected governor and morphed into a restrictionist. In his 1994 reelection, he championed Proposition 187—a spiteful ballot initiative that would have denied education, welfare, and non-emergency health care to illegal immigrants and their children.

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Voters approved the measure, but a federal judge struck it down as unconstitutional since the federal government is exclusively responsible for controlling immigration. Just this week, in fact, California went through a cleansing of sorts. In a largely symbolic move, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill—SB396—deleting from state statutes unenforceable remnants of Proposition 187. You could say the state is doing penance for past sins.

Also in 1994, President Bill Clinton, refusing to let Democrats be portrayed by Republicans as soft on illegal immigration, deployed more border patrol agents, built more fencing, and militarized the border south of San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper. The crackdown funneled more migrants through the Arizona desert, and many of them settled in the Grand Canyon State, where they were quickly gobbled up by employers to do the sort of hard and dirty jobs that U.S. citizens in Arizona didn’t want to do. So many migrants put down roots there, in fact, that, in 2010, the Arizona legislature passed Senate Bill 1070, which required local police to enforce federal immigration law and essentially legalized ethnic profiling of Latinos.

Today, many Californians feel ambivalent about illegal immigration. They’re under no delusions about how dependent they’ve become on a phenomenon they used to decry. They don’t really believe that the kid making lattes at Starbucks, the one with all the body piercings, is going to rush out and pick plums in 100-degree heat. And, on the home front, they’ve probably figured out that—when they come home after dark, and the lawn is perfectly manicured—it’s not the work of elves.

But, as this study makes clear, if the Golden State didn’t have illegal immigrants, it would have to invent them. And if California’s industries suddenly had to rely on a completely legal workforce and couldn’t hire another undocumented person, many of them would be out of business.

Is that a good thing? Is it a bad thing? What does it matter? It’s the truth.

When the conversation turns to illegal immigrants, many Americans don’t want to accept the truth. And Californians are no different. That’s their prerogative. But they should at least be able to recognize it when it is staring them in the face.