AUGUST 22, 2004

Copley News Service

TORRANCE--By most measures, Tim Sabosky has it made. A youthful-looking 50, he has a close family and a home that is riding the wave of Torrance's surging real estate values. He looks forward to a comfortable retirement in six years from his job as a telecommunications technician.

But Sabosky is far from comfortable. His belief that politicians have allowed immigration to get out of hand leaves him fretting about the future.

"The boat is full and we're starting to sink," Sabosky said.

Immigration anxiety, like the constant thrum of the San Diego (405) Freeway, is a troubling byproduct of four decades of intense immigration to the South Bay. It reared its head statewide 10 years ago when voters approved California's controversial Proposition 187, which sought to cut off public benefits for illegal immigrants.

But a muffled anger persists. Even as many residents acknowledge immigrants' cultural and economic contributions to the region, the pace and intensity of immigration -- both legal and illegal -- have left some unsettled.

Back in 1970, when there were 20 million Californians, one in 12 was foreign-born. Now, with the state's population at 36 million, one in four is an immigrant. That trend is even more pronounced in the South Bay, where the proportion of foreign-born residents quintupled from 6 percent in 1960 to 31 percent in 2000.

And while the newcomers have arrived from every corner of the globe, 52 percent are from Latin America. Most of the rest are from Asia.

"I feel like a stranger in my own country," said Karen Amour, 46, of Redondo Beach.

"I just wish the government would admit that California is gone," said Melody Norris, who came to the South Bay in 1983 from Indiana. "They should say it's either part of Mexico or its own country, and give us relocation assistance."

Immigration -- both legal and illegal -- has become one of the most pervasive elements of life in the South Bay, across California and, increasingly, across the United States.

Record rates of immigration, coupled with the high birth rates of immigrant families, especially those from Latin America, ensure that the country's future will be shaped even more powerfully by its newest residents.

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On the plus side, immigrants fuel economic growth. Some work as engineers and entrepreneurs at the highest levels of the economy. Many others provide cheap, flexible labor that serves not only business, but also homeowners with lawns to tend and parents with children to care for. As consumers, they benefit retailers, grocers and landlords.

While most of the gains generated by their labor are privatized, primarily benefiting employers, the costs associated with such low-wage immigrants tend to be socialized. They are absorbed by taxpayers who pay for the schools, hospital care and other social services needed by a rapidly rising population concentrated at the bottom end of the American economy.

There is a similar duality in immigration policy, which is set in Washington but plays out in thousands of communities across the country.

Federal lawmakers have done little to address -- or even assess -- the needs of immigrants and the communities where they settle.

The Border Patrol makes an expensive effort to stop illegal immigration at the Mexican border. But the border remains so porous, and enforcement of laws against hiring undocumented immigrants so weak, that the illegal immigrant population nationwide is growing by hundreds of thousands yearly.

And the problem goes far beyond illegal border crossers. As many as 40 percent of those who live in the United States illegally entered the country with tourist visas and chose to stay.

The influx has sharply increased needs for public services in areas settled by the newcomers. It has ratcheted up the competition for jobs and housing, which tends to push wages down and the need for social services up. While illegal immigrants are not entitled to welfare benefits, their U.S-born children are.

"It puts a big strain on the system -- on schools, hospitals, roads, everything," said Joel Kotkin a Pepperdine University scholar who focuses on global social and economic trends.

Kotkin celebrates the history of U.S. immigration, saying it "has been an incredibly positive force" in the growth and development of the country. But he understands the concerns of people like Sabosky. "There is a huge anxiety out there," Kotkin said. "A lot of people feel a sense of displacement, a sense that there is no control."

Fred Griffin, who at 59 is old enough to remember when Del Amo Fashion Center was a strawberry field, knows the chill that can blow into casual conversations that drift toward concern about immigration.

"If you talk about it, some people look at you like you're prejudiced, like you're not a nice person," said Griffin, who teaches construction under a city of Torrance job-training program.

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"When the economy is good nobody complains about illegal immigration," said San Pedro businessman Xavier Hermosillo, "and when the economy is bad everybody screams about it."

Immigration and economics are forever intertwined. While immigrants embrace the political freedoms promised by the United States, the big draw is economic opportunity. At a time when globalization is shuttering factories and luring good-paying American jobs overseas, intense immigration to the United States tightens the sense of economic squeeze for many Americans with working-class roots.

The South Bay industrial work force, which made the area "the arsenal of democracy" and a sun-lit haven for the defense workers who flocked here during World War II, has been shedding jobs for more than a decade.

The opportunity for upward mobility is increasingly reserved for the best educated and the best trained.

"The jobs just aren't there; they don't exist for people who aren't educated," said Joe Aro, executive director of the South Bay Economic Development Partnership. "I'm talking about the good jobs that allow you to buy a house and raise a family."

Of all the ideas that the United States has exported to the world, perhaps none is more powerful than the American dream, the liberating notion that a commitment to education and hard work lead to middle-class comfort.

Yet while most immigrants find it easy to get work at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, many find that ladder increasingly difficult to climb.

UCLA immigration scholar William Clark points out that access to the middle class is dwindling for the poorly educated, unskilled immigrants who dominate the flow from Latin America.

"The relatively stable, often unionized jobs in manufacturing that were common 50 years ago have been replaced either by high-technology development jobs or by very low-skilled service jobs" that generally offer low wages, "have little if any security and even less chance of occupational advancement," Clark observes.

Marriott's TownePlace Suites at Rosecrans Avenue and Aviation Boulevard in Hawthorne was built last year on the site of a former aerospace plant. It is a temporary home for scientists, engineers and technicians on short-term assignment with Northrop Grumman and Boeing.

The hotel's entire housekeeping staff is Latino. One of them, Jose Gonzalez, said he had been making $9.50 an hour before he lost his job as a helper on a press machine at a Carlton Forge Works factory in Paramount that made airplane parts.

Gonzalez, a native of Mexico, said he had hoped to work his way up at Carlton, learning skills and maybe becoming a supervisor one day. Now he feels stuck. "I'm making $7.85 (an hour)," he said. "It doesn't go very far."

Some employers say the American worker has changed as much as the American workplace, pushing them to hire illegal immigrants.

Tom Kent said he has given up hiring native-born Americans to work in his small Redondo Beach landscaping company.

"They don't show up," he explained. "Plus they have a bad attitude, especially on Mondays." By contrast, he said, his immigrant employees work hard and eagerly.

Kent said his business "would be lost" without a Mexican immigrant named Jaime who came to the United States 14 years ago.

"To me he's like family," said Kent, who has racked up several thousand dollars in attorney fees in an attempt to sponsor Jaime for a green card.

Earlier this year, on a day like most others, two dozen immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala stood on Manhattan Beach Boulevard, hoping for work.

Only one said he had a high school education. Most had just a few years of school. A few acknowledged that they did not know how to read or write. They lived in crowded apartments in Gardena, Hawthorne and Inglewood. Two said they were paying $150 a month to sleep in a garage.

"We do moving, gardening, construction -- anything," said Julio, a broad-shouldered 40-year-old from Mexico.

Just then, a man in a late-model Ford F-150 pickup pulled up and flashed two fingers. The semaphore triggered a brief shoving match that ended with two men scrambling into the cab and driving off with the stranger.

These men, like many immigrants, have traded the pounding poverty of their homelands for the upgrade of poverty American-style. In a column for the Spanish-language Los Angeles paper Hoy early this year, immigrant Miguel Orozco put their choice this way: "Between being screwed up here or in my country -- better here."

But many also escape the trap. Hermosillo, the son of a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother, says the continuing flow of illegal immigration from Latin America obscures the prominence achieved by many Latinos whose families have been here for decades.

"When I grew up, probably the most notable person on TV with any semblance of being Latino was the Frito Bandito," said Hermosillo, 53.

"My doctor and lawyer are Latinos, the L.A. County sheriff is named Baca and Latinos are everywhere in the media.

"We are not all recent immigrants and not all here illegally," he said.

"That gets lost sometimes in the discussion."

"The problem is that California has never been able to do its own work," said Kevin Starr, a USC professor of history and public policy. "We've always had to bring in labor, including farm workers from Mexico and Indians with math skills."

Starr said immigration anxiety is inevitable in an area that has changed so much within the space of a few generations. He looks back nearly a century to find a demographic baseline.

"Statistically, there were times, in the 1920s and '30s, when Los Angeles was the whitest major city in the nation," Starr said. "Some people who grew up here suddenly find themselves in a metropolitan region that is the second-largest Mexican city, the third-largest Korean city, with large populations of Iranians and Vietnamese.

"That's a lot of transformation and change and stress."

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Tim Sabosky sees the South Bay's broad middle-class giving way to a sharper split between rich and poor. And he believes immigration is a factor.

At a light on Pacific Coast Highway, he took stock of the BMWs and Mercedes hurtling by. "When I was a kid this was a station-wagon-family kind of town," he said.

Sabosky's father, the son of a Czech immigrant, found the American dream on an eighth-grade education. He worked as a coal miner and at a steel plant before serving as an Army cook in World War II. After the war, he got work at U.S. Steel in Torrance, where the United Steelworkers union was strong enough to ensure that the older Sabosky could raise his seven children in a house he owned.

Now that home, where the older Sabosky still lives, is dwarfed by the much bigger home next door. Their street has been transformed over the past decade or so as newcomers bought homes, razed them, and built so ambitiously that there's not much lot left for lawn or trees.

"We call it mansionization," Sabosky said.

Mansionization is in full swing up and down the South Bay coast. Most of the construction workers -- along with the maids, cooks and gardeners -- are Latin American immigrants.