Coming to California: An Essay in Seven Parts on the History of this Land: Part 7

Posted on September 11, 2013 by Yvonne Lefort
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Based on an interview with Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California, this column narrates the history of California through the personal story of someone who once moved to this area seeking new opportunities, just like we did. — Diana Gadaldi, international spouse of a postdoc at UC Berkeley

Episode 7: A glimpse into post-1965 immigration data: Who’s coming to California today? (sequel of episode 6: Diary of a drag queen: the history of José Sarria and the rise of the LGBT political activism in the Bay Area).

The last section of OMCA’s Gallery of California History, entitled “California: To Be Continued…”, deals with California’s most recent history, presenting an overview of the events that have marked California’s history over the last thirty-five years, from the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border to the technology boom that accompanied the rise of Silicon Valley. In particular, the interactive installation entitled “Immigration after 1975”, featuring the cabin of a vintage airplane and the environment of an airport’s international arrivals terminal, offers museum visitors a fresh look at the history of immigration to the ‘Golden State’ after 1975.

In the decades from 1921 to 1965, immigration to the United States was drastically restricted by the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and subsequently by the additional measures introduced by the Immigration Act of 1924. These laws limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country of the world to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States. Moreover, they prohibited the entry of specific categories of people such as “sexual deviants”—including homosexuals—, Southern and Eastern Europeans—most of whom were Jews in flight from the Nazi persecution in Poland and Russia—, as well as anyone born in the so called “Asiatic Barred Zone”, which included large parts of the Middle East, East Asia, and India. Chinese immigrants were already banned by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. According to the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian, the purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity”.

About forty years later, at the height of the 1960s Civil Right Movement, President John F. Kennedy called the then still-in-effect quota-system “nearly intolerable”. In 1965, two years after Kennedy’s assassination, his successor President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which marked a radical break from the immigration policies of the past. Numerical restrictions on visas were set at 170,000 per years for the Eastern Hemisphere and 120,000 per year for the Western Hemisphere, not including the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens and “special immigrants” such as former citizens, ministers, and employees of the U.S. government abroad. To emphasize the symbolic importance of this historic moment, President Johnson chose the site of the Statue of Liberty as the location for the signing ceremony.

The new immigration law changed America’s demography and makeup for good. According to the statistics published on census.org, by 1990, the foreign-born population on U.S. territory was more than doubled compared to pre-1965 quotas, from 9.7 to 19.8 million. By 2010, that amount had quadrupled, reaching 40 million or 12.9% of the entire U.S. population. Another remarkable shift involved the immigrants’ place of origin: prior to immigration reform, the great majority of them were born in Europe (75%) while only a small number came from Latin America (9%) and Asia (5%). Through the 50 years that followed, the situation reversed: while only 12% of the immigrants recorded in 2010 were born in Europe, 53% came from Latin America and 28% from Asia.

Can you guess where as much as 25% of all foreign-born residents of the U.S. live today? In California, of course! As a recent research conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California shows, 27% of the state’s population in 2011 was foreign-born, about twice as much as in the rest of the U.S. In the city of San Francisco, this percentage even ran up to 30%.

The environment of an airports international arrivals terminal featured in the interactive installation  “Immigration after 1975” in OMCA Gallery of California History. Photo: Diana Gadaldi.

The environment of an airports international arrivals terminal featured in the interactive installation
“Immigration after 1975” in OMCA Gallery of California History. Photo: Diana Gadaldi.

The installation mentioned earlier, in the last section of OMCA’s Gallery of California History, features a LED screen displaying the most frequent international arrivals at California airports between 1975 and 2010, corresponding to the ranking of the geographical places that provided the highest number of immigrants during the same time period. Confirming the statistics published on census.org, we see Mexico City comes in first, with ca. 1,673,000 arrivals per year, followed by Manila with ca. 742,000, and Beijing with ca. 435,000. The only three European cities in this ranking are London (nr. 10) with less than 100,000 arrivals, Yerevan (nr. 16) with ca. 27,000 arrivals, and Berlin (nr. 24) with ca. 3,000 arrivals.

The three remaining displays featured in the same environment show the “x-ray scan” of pieces of luggage carried by immigrants. The different kinds of food, clothes, devotional images, and musical instruments contained in the suitcases are a metaphorical reference to the cultural practices immigrants bring to California, such as their eating traditions, religion, and music. This part of the installation gives museum visitors a better understanding of how multifaceted California’s society actually is, and how quickly it evolves.

The cabin of a vintage airplane featured in the interactive installation “Immigration after 1975” in OMCA Gallery of California History. Photo: Diana Gadaldi.

The cabin of a vintage airplane featured in the interactive installation “Immigration after 1975” in OMCA Gallery of California History. Photo: Diana Gadaldi.

The vintage airplane cabin rebuilt in the same gallery space and refurbished to resemble a World Airways aircraft from ca. 1973, is equipped with headphones and invites museum visitors to take a sit and listen to the story of people who have come to California in the last 35 years. Even though every story is unique, they all share similar feelings, such as excitement, curiosity, hope in the future but also discomfort, homesickness, and fear of the unknown.

Undoubtedly, this particular situation—sitting on a plane while preparing to start a new life far from home—will sound familiar to most UC Berkeley visiting students, postdocs, scholars, and their spouses. Although temporary residents such as the international community at Cal are not likely to be included in these immigration statistics, their influence on Bay Area’s demographic evolution is definitely worth further discussion.

According to Berkeley International Office’s data, UC Berkeley currently hosts 4,926 international students from 114 different nations (not including students at Summer Session or UC Extension), twice as much as in 2003 and almost 14% of all enrolled students. The number of international postdocs and scholars visiting UC Berkeley over the last 10 years has increased too: 3,058 as of fall 2012, 56% more than in 2003. In 2011 (data from 2012 are not available yet), the top three countries of origin in the international students’ ranking were China with 22%, South Korea with 18%, and India with 8.7%. Among the international postdocs and scholars, 18% came from China, 11% from Germany and 8.6% from South Korea. While the percentage of internationals from East Asia—especially from China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—was very high in both groups (50% of the students and 38% of the postdocs and visiting scholars), the statistical presence of Europeans—with Germany, France, Italy, and Spain on top—was extremely unbalanced: 47% among international postdocs and visiting scholars and only 8.5% among international students.

Besides international Cal students, postdocs, and visiting scholars, the Bay Area hosts many of their spouses and children. Just like their partners, UC Berkeley spouses are active members of the local community. According to Berkeley International Office’s data, they are most typically women between 25 and 35 years old, plan to stay in California for 2 to 5 years, have one young child, and are looking for a job. Even those who plan to stay at home or are not eligible to work, contribute to fostering cultural growth, social cohesion, and even economic development as they often form cultural groups, engage in volunteer work, give classes, or start cooperatives.

Apart from figures, California’s international community in its entirety has added, over many centuries, an incalculable value to the cultural, social, political, and economic well-being of this land. From the Ohlone people—who lived in California before all the other people came—to the Spanish, the gold-seekers, the artists, the political activists, the members of the international Cal community, and the countless immigrants from all over the world, newcomers stimulated social and cultural integration and contributed, each on his own way, to create the open, vital and prosperous state that is today California.

To conclude this journey through California’s history—or more correctly—through the personal history of some of its leading characters, I would like to thank Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), for the precious time she invested in our interview. In addition, a very special thanks goes to Claudia Leung, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at OMCA, who assisted me throughout the writing process, Yvonne Lefort, Intercultural Trainer and Career Consultant at UC Berkeley, who allowed me to launch this essay on her International Spouses and Partners Blog, and last but not least all the international spouses at UC Berkeley who inspired and motivated me to complete this project. Thank you!

Other sources for this article were:  

The Immigration Act of 1924, History.state.gov
The Immigration Act of 1965, America.gov
The Size, Place of Birth, and Geographic Distribution of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States: 1960 to 2010, Census.gov
Immigrants in California, Ppic.org
International students enrolment data, Internationaloffice.berkeley.edu
Annual Report of International Visiting Scholars, Internationaloffice.berkeley.edu

© Diana Gadaldi

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