As one of those American rarities -- a Los Angeles native -- I looked at recent, mainly Mexican protests against proposed restrictions on illegal immigration with more than just outrage over lost U.S. sovereignty. I was also reflexively examining aerial photos to pinpoint where in Los Angeles those hundreds of thousands of Mexican-flag-waving demonstrators were marching.
It was downtown Los Angeles, a section of the sprawling city I rarely visited growing up. Then it hit me: As a kid in the 1960s, my mother had taken me on an outing to Olvera Street, an old section of downtown ("old" for Los Angeles being mid-to-late-19th century) where visitors went to enjoy folkloric Mexican food and crafts as -- it sounds unbelievable now -- a colorful tourist attraction. And visitors still go there. But then it really hit me: There weren't that many Mexicans in Los Angeles back then.
Or, to put it another way, citing the online encyclopedia Encarta: "In 1960, non-Hispanic whites made up 82 percent of the population of Los Angeles County." Forty years later, the 2000 census showed that the white population had dwindled to 31 percent, while Hispanics -- 79 percent of whom hail from Mexico -- accounted for 44.6 percent of population. This colossal surge has made the Mexican population of Los Angeles second only to that of Mexico City. Little wonder Los Angeles voters in 2005 elected Antonio Villaraigosa, the city's first Hispanic mayor since 1872 when, as the research site notes, Los Angeles was "a small frontier town of about 6,000 people."
Mexicans by the millions are a relatively new demographic phenomenon in the United States. So how did Los Angeles become a Mexican metropolis? Encarta cites the 1965 Immigration Act, which, it explains, officially ended "bias in favor of Northern European immigrants ... opening the doors to massive immigration from Latin America and Asia."
I found this explanation almost refreshing in that this landmark bill is often overlooked in considering American demographic shifts. As Peter Brimelow brilliantly argued in his book "Alien Nation" (Harper Perennial, 1996), the 1965 Act remains central to the immigration debate that American political elites have so assiduously and irresponsibly avoided for decades.