A Grown-Up Letter to Santa Hoping Santa brings enough immigrants to ensure California’s future


By Joe Mathews

Kris Kringle
Santa Claus Lane
Carpinteria, CA 93013

Dear Kris,

I hope you don’t mind me writing you at the California beach house address you slipped me when we met at that Mattel corporate event. I would have mailed this to the North Pole, but I don’t have any international stamps.

I know most of the letters you get are from kids. So let me start out by saying there is no toy I need. And while I’m on the subject, please don’t get my 6-year-old the hot tub he asked you for—those things are dangerous for little kids, and our house is so small that there’d be no place to put it.

But there is something I want for Christmas—not just for myself but for my state.

What does California need? We’re a relatively rich place with nearly 40 million residents, which you might think would be more than enough people. Except that it’s not.

The statistics show that California faces shortages of the kinds of people it needs to have a brighter future: children, skilled workers, farm workers, construction workers, doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers and college graduates.  (This is only a partial list. Still, check it twice.)

The fastest way to address these shortages is by attracting more immigrants. While more than one-quarter of Californians are foreign-born, and immigrants make up 34 percent of our workforce, we’ve had so little immigration over the last decade that we face a shortage of new immigrants too.

And it’s getting harder to attract more. Even though California is very nice to immigrants, our federal government is run by very naughty people who spread anti-immigrant bigotry, make it harder for immigrants to enter the country, and engage in mass deportation.

Which is why I turn to you, St. Nick. With your magically high-volume delivery system and your uncanny ability to slip unnoticed past U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Santa Claus is our last, best hope for getting the immigrants California needs.

Can you send a million? Or maybe two million?

I know you read in the papers that politicians are debating our country’s supposedly terrible economic problems because it has too many immigrants. But that’s fake news.

We actually need many more immigrants because, nationally, the number of job openings is at an all-time record. In California, and especially in coastal counties, some employers are so desperate for workers that they are considering moving out of state.

This is the nasty paradox of California’s success: Growth has made it hard for people to stay. The high cost of living, particularly around housing and transportation, has created a consistent out-migration of residents, with between 50,000 and 150,000 more people leaving California each year than arriving from other states. This domestic out-migration is particularly pronounced among the younger and working-class people who should be the backbone of the state’s future.

You can see the resulting lack of workers in every corner of the state. With immigration’s decline, most of the state’s construction firms report shortages of workers, which — in a vicious cycle — causes costly delays that make building anything more expensive. And the lack of immigrants has decimated the agricultural workforce, which consists primarily of foreign-born workers. Farms are offering higher salaries, more vacation, and retirement and housing benefits — but still aren’t drawing enough workers.

Immigrants also could give California’s entrepreneurial culture a boost: More than 40 percent of business owners in Southern California are foreign-born. So it’s unsurprising that the state’s rate of business formation has slowed in the last decade (albeit less rapidly than the U.S. rate).

Long-term, the shortage of workers is most worrisome in healthcare; currently, there aren’t enough people to take care of California’s two fastest-growing demographics, the disabled and the old. With the number of Californians over 65 expected to double in the next generation, how much worse will the shortage get without a big surge of immigrants to fill those jobs?

All California regions except the Bay Area and Sacramento face doctor shortages, particularly in primary care. What looks like a medical shortage is really an immigrant shortage, since more than one-third of our doctors are foreign-born. The same dynamic holds in California’s science, technology, engineering, and math occupations, in which 42 percent of workers are immigrants.

California’s immigrant population is diverse educationally — some arrive with very high levels of education, and some desperately need to be educated here. California needs more of both types. The Public Policy Institute of California has estimated that by 2030, the state will have 1.1 million fewer college graduates than its economic needs will require. The current immigration levels aren’t high enough to make up the difference. “Much larger increases in international migration will be necessary for the supply of highly educated workers to meet the demand,” PPIC said in a report.

If not for the immigration we already have, these shortages would be much worse.

California’s most reliable method for producing more people — having more babies — isn’t working as well as it once did. The birth rate in the state is now below the replacement rate, and major coastal counties — particularly Los Angeles and Orange — have seen steep declines in the number of children. Attracting more and younger immigrants would help reverse that.

Now, I know that Santa tries not to get involved in policy and politics. And yes, Californians need to invest more in our current residents. But that takes time and money, and the problems I’m talking about are in the here and now. And I’m sure you see these shortages. Everywhere I go in California this time of year, you’re there; you spend much more time talking to average people than our politicians do.

And I don’t have to remind you that you’re an immigrant yourself. (St. Nicholas started out as a 4th-century Greek saint in what is now southern Turkey).

Kris, I realize that your pack of gifts is already heavy, and that you don’t want to overtax your renewable fuel source, those eight tiny reindeer. But remember the story of Christmas. If you can find the magic to get the people our state needs on your sleigh, we should be able to make sure that there’s room for them at the Hotel California.

Feliz Navidad,
Joe Mathews

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About Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.