According to research by Partnership member Raj Chetty, for children born in the early 1980s, the San Jose, California commuting zone had the highest rate of upward mobility of any commuting zone in the United States. A child born in the bottom fifth of the national income distribution there had a 12.9-percent chance of reaching the top fifth by age 30. The Partnership was interested in learning from this unique context, so we visited with local residents and leaders in the city’s Mayfair neighborhood to learn about the dynamics of economic mobility in this community with a high concentration of immigrant families. Approximately 70 percent of Mayfair’s population is Latino, 22 percent is Asian or Pacific Islander, and 46 percent is foreign-born. And these families live in Silicon Valley, within 30 minutes of some of the biggest technology companies in the world.
We spent the good part of a day talking with local residents, nonprofit organizations, and government leaders, learning about their experiences. Here’s some of what we heard.
Many in Silicon Valley face significant barriers to opportunity. There are 76,000 millionaires and billionaires in Santa Clara County, of which San Jose is part, and neighboring San Mateo County. This concentration of wealth and the impact of land-use restrictions contribute to a housing affordability crisis that has some residents paying $1,000 per month to live in a garage or $600 to sleep on a couch.
Many of the workers with the lowest wages are Latino. “The present circumstances of poverty and the racial order trace back to a deep history here,” said Maritza Maldonado, executive director of Amigos de Guadalupe Center for Justice & Empowerment. She pointed to the Bracero Program that ran from 1942 to 1964, under which Mexican nationals were given temporary and unequal status to work in the United States.
Residents talked about being isolated from the wealth and opportunity in the area. Some parents are not able to give their children access to cultural amenities that are just minutes away because of the expense.
Immigration status has an enormous effect on individuals, families, and entire communities. Residents and local leaders estimated that nearly all families in the area, roughly 98 percent, were mixed-status, with at least one member of the household in the country without authorization. This places limits on the education and employment prospects of individuals and the incomes of entire families. During hours of the day that were once very active, the streets are now quiet. Many stay indoors for fear of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids.
Local nonprofit organizations play multiple and important roles. Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the National Farm Workers Association, began his organizing career in Mayfair, and that tradition continues in the work of local organizations. Local nonprofits assist with immigrant integration, including language training. They help people advocate for themselves. A woman working with Somos Mayfair, a community organization and our host for the day, talked about receiving help to make the case for language translation at her child’s school. The organization Silicon Valley De-Bug employs what it calls “participatory defense,” training family members to represent the interests of loved ones in their dealings with the criminal justice system. This could involve working with or prodding a public defender who has a massive caseload or providing a constant presence in the courtroom to show a judge how much a community supports someone standing trial.
We met residents of Mayfair on one stretch of a long journey. People who traveled long distances to reach the United States are struggling for a share of enormous resources now close enough to touch.