What happens to a country or a city when millions of people move from an outcast status to legal members of society?What happens to their families, schools, jobs, their landlords and healthcare system?What happens to their communities? “What happens to us?”To answer those questions and more, the Zócalo Public Square (a nonprofit that promotes exchange of ideas in response to immediate community needs), in partnership with Spanish broadcaster Azteca America, sponsored a May 1 panel attended by local businesspeople, college students and legal service providers, among others.“We’re here to focus on legalization [of immigrants] not as a political process, but as a social process,” said moderator Roberto Suro, director of University of Southern California’s Tomás Rivera Policy Institute, an interdisciplinary research center exploring the challenges and opportunities of demographic diversity in the 21st century. “Here we are,” continued Suro, “on May 1, 2013, anticipating a vote on a comprehensive immigration reform bill,” after a 2006 immigration march that was “disappointing in its results,” yet “in some ways one of the greatest movements in U.S. history held with little coordination or leadership.”If the bill is enacted, he said, millions of people will come out of the shadows to be involved in a process of civic transformation, which from the start might imply changes in the registration process and might post other challenges and changes in the way people live.“It’s a process of incorporation, not just a change in the legal status,” added Suro, professor in USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism and the School of Policy, Planning and Development. “This will change the way people live, the way they raise their families and the way they interact at many levels in our society.”“So how are we affected in California and how are we involved?” he questioned. “Just the process of legalization is a subject of study because it is an interesting process of social mobilization, never seen in any part of the world.“So how do we make a success of this process?” he asked again, “and what would be the byproducts of that process? And how will California look like in the future?”‘The fastest growing sector’There are 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the country, more than 2.6 million in California, and more than 900,000 who have been Los Angeles County residents for more than 10 years, according to research done by panelist Manuel Pastor, professor in USC’s American Studies and Ethnicity Department.Out of this population, said the co-director of USC’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, 1.5 million children in California have at least one undocumented parent, with more than 80 percent of these children born in the U.S. Nearly 500,000 of the children in L.A. County have at least one undocumented parent, and more than 83 percent of the minors are U.S. citizens. “This is the fastest growing sector in the country,” said panelist Marcelo Suarez-Orozco, dean of Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA, pointing out that the legalization of the undocumented parents will have an impact on their children’s learning ability.Citing studies showing that, by age three, children growing up in undocumented households have slow socio-emotional, relational, cognitive and behavioral engagements, he warned these issues should be addressed by the educational system. That system, Suarez-Orozco claimed, is instead withdrawing from investing in the “population that matters most demographically” and “not meeting the needs of the world, challenging our democracy. “This is an enormous undertaking and we all have a big stake on being interested in finding the right solutions because no country in the world has taken on this task before,” he said.“How do we give them the cognitive skills to engage them in the globalized economy?” he asked. “How do we connect with these children so they can become engaged workers of the 21st century labor market?” Panelist Gilbert Ojeda, director of the California Program on Access to Care (CPAC) at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, introduced another challenge: access to healthcare.CPAC promotes healthcare reform in California, specifically in agricultural and rural areas. It has engaged in the revitalization of Healthy Families, a children’s low-cost insurance program, and has laid the groundwork for a state prescription drug discount plan.Under the proposed federal bill, immigrants won’t have access to welfare during the first 10 years of the naturalization process.Ojeda said that although L.A. County has developed an exemplary health system for the undocumented population, it is not the case in the rest of the state or the country. “Corporate communities are already behind,” he noted.“We have enough infrastructure,” he said, adding that if public entities embark in offering the appropriate solutions he foresees favorable results.But, “unless we do something with younger generations we won’t have a prosperous society,” he said. “We need to start thinking forward. What will happen with job-training programs, or English as a Second Language classes? The fact that more than two-thirds of the children in L.A. County have one immigrant parent has to be taken more seriously than it has in the past.”Prompted by a question from the audience regarding competition between native and international students, Suarez-Orozco posed the question: “How will this affect higher-education prospects? Are we setting up kids born here to confront greater competition?”Over the last two generations, he said, the U.S. has progressed by acquiring high-quality international “human capital.” “There are more physicians from Ghana in the U.S. than in Ghana and more high-quality Indian professionals than in India,” Suarez-Orozco noted. “This is intensifying a dynamic that is quite new in recent flows of immigrants. “You couldn’t run a science class at a university without these immigrants. Universities will continue to muscularly engage in an increasing borderless higher education system that is transforming the higher education landscape in our country, in contrast with a large, undocumented, low-skill immigrant population in places such as Silicon Valley.”Acknowledging the challenges, businesswoman Cecilia Mota, past president of the L.A.-based National Latina Business Women Association, said she felt motivated by the discussion.“I’m sure we will see more business entrepreneurs and growth in rural areas,” said the director of community affairs of the Alliance of Multicultural Entrepreneurs.“This is about freedom and equal rights for all people,” said Karen Lascaris, owner of an art and design startup and board chair of Watts Village Theater Co. She said the panel was an “eye-opener.”For more information, visit zocalopublicsquare.org.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0510/immigration/{/gallery}