`Ellis Island -- West'

INSIDE the peach-tinted auditorium, 65 young students sat nervously on a creaky wooden stage, waiting to receive their diplomas. It was graduation time at the Alexandria Avenue elementary school, and it might have been similar to any other send-off of sixth graders around the country, except for one thing: Fully 80 percent of the youngsters on stage here last week were born in a foreign land.

There was Sally To from Vietnam. Ernestine Ordonez from Guatemala. David Phoumichith from Laos. Alex Ramirez from Nicaragua....

``This school is almost like a port of entry for the various ethnic groups coming to this country,'' says principal George Avak.

Indeed it is. While all eyes look east to the Statue of Liberty this week, California continues to emerge as the Ellis Island of the late 20th century.

The state is experiencing a wave of immigration considered to be one of the largest and most significant in United States history. Unlike the arrivals in New York Harbor earlier this century, who were mainly of European stock, the new immigrants are mostly Hispanic and Asian.

They are profoundly changing the country's political, economic, and cultural landscape. California, as the new gateway, is the principal looking glass for the problems and promise these arrivals portend.

``California is going to continue to be the bellwether,'' says Kevin McCarthy, a senior demographer at the Rand Corporation. ``Both the benefits and dislocations are going to be felt here more than anywhere else.''

The evidence of California's changing face is stark:

Nearly one-third of the immigrants arriving in the US each year show up in California -- a surge that, between 1970 and 1980, accounted for half the state's population growth.

The Golden State is well on its way to becoming the country's first ``third-world state.'' According to demographic projections, by 2010 a majority of Californians will be members of American racial-minority groups. Anglos are already a minority in Los Angeles County.

While mass swearing-in ceremonies are being held for new citizens in 47 cities this week to mark the Statue of Liberty centennial, such affairs have become commonplace in southern California.

On average, 12,000 immigrants are being naturalized in the Los Angeles area each month. Last year, for the first time, L.A. eclipsed New York City as the place where the most new citizens were sworn in.

``Just finding places large enough to accommodate our needs is getting difficult,'' says Jim Bates of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service office here.

Moreover, these figures take into account mainly only the legal immigrants. California is also bearing the brunt of an unprecedented surge of illegal aliens pouring across the Mexican border. Congress is under increasing pressure to pass legislation to slow the flow.

California has become a magnet for newcomers for several reasons. First is its proximity to Latin America and the Pacific Basin, where most of the new immigrants are coming from. Second is a humming economy that holds out the prospect of jobs for the new arrivals. Finally, experts say, there is the long history of non-European migration to the area. The state already has a diverse ethnic base, and many of the new immigrants want to live in proximity to those with similar national and racial origins.

The continuous arrival of newcomers from Asia (most from the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, China) and Latin America (mainly from Mexico, but many also from El Salvador and Guatemala) is fundamentally altering the state's complexion. In 1980, whites made up 67 percent of the state's population, while Hispanics are 19 percent, blacks 8 percent, and Asians 7 percent. By the turn of the century, whites are projected to make up 54 percent, Hispanics 27 percent, Asians 12 percent, and blacks 8 percent.

The ethnic shifts are most striking in sun-dappled southern California, which is receiving the bulk of the foreign migrants. The impact of the new immigrants on the City of Angels -- long noted for its sprawling blandness -- is palpable.

The area now boasts the largest Mexican community outside Mexico City, the largest population of Koreans outside the Orient, and the largest number of Salvadoreans outside El Salvador.

Chinese merchants peddle Bruce Lee posters in Chinatown, while Filipinos pitch bamboo wares along Temple Avenue. More than 83 languages echo through the area's schools.

To a degree, the polyglot character of Los Angeles has helped it cope with the deluge of newcomers better than some cities might. ``The healthy thing about L.A. is that it has so many diverse groups already,'' says Harry Kitano, a professor of social welfare at the University of California at Los Angeles.

At the same time, however, tensions still run high among many ethnic groups, lending weight to the theory that Los Angeles is more of a tossed salad than a melting pot. This spring, a series of murders of Korean shopkeepers in the tough south-central part of the city focused attention on tensions between blacks and Koreans.

Some immigrants prey on their own people. Gangs of Vietnamese youths in southern California and other parts of the US take advantage of their knowledge of the living habits of their countrymen to rob Vietnamese immigrants.

California Anglos are not universally enamored of the new arrivals. One visible sign: In Monterey Park, a middle-class community east of here, a bitter backlash is under way against the influx of Chinese, including a drive to require business signs in English.

``I think there is an upsurge in physical violence against the immigrant community,'' says Linda Wong, head of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

In other areas, the impact of the region's changing ethnic mix is only beginning to be felt. Politically, Hispanics, who now make up about 30 percent of Los Angeles County's population, have long been expected to flex their muscle at the ballot box. But that hasn't happened much yet. Only one Latino sits on the L.A. City Council. One reason is that many Hispanics in the area are not citizens, and many also are not old enough to vote.

``In terms of state and presidential elections, I think it will be at least a decade before they [Latinos] come into their own,'' says Bruce Cain, a California Institute of Technology political scientist who recently co-wrote a major study on the political impact of minorities in California.

More contentious, and ill-defined, is the impact of immigrants on the job market. Some experts argue that the newcomers are needed to propel economic growth, since California is expected to create more jobs this decade than the local labor market can supply. Yet much of the job growth will come in the professional and skilled-services areas.

There is concern that without better education and training, low-skilled immigrants, particularly Mexicans, could be locked into a permanent underclass. Public schools, meanwhile, are struggling to cope with the new immigrant wave.

The Los Angeles school district is seeing 15,000 new students a year partly as a result of the influx. It has been forced to place many schools on a year-round schedule and is searching for more teachers.

``We can't find enough bilingual teachers to cope with all the languages,'' says Jerry Halverson, an associate superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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