Facing Economic Crisis, Bitter Debate, Survey Finds Immigrants Hold Fast to American Dream

Melissa Feldsher, Public Agenda Press Release, September 9, 2009

A Place to Call Home

FOR RELEASE ON:

September 09, 2009

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT:

Melissa Feldsher at 212-686-6610, ext. 50

Despite the worst economic crisis in decades, renewed national security concerns in a post-9/11 world and an immigration policy many consider to be broken, a new Public Agenda survey finds immigrants themselves hold fast to their belief that America remains the land of opportunity and remain committed to becoming U.S. citizens. These voices are vital as legislators today lay the groundwork for passing immigration reform by President Obama’s 2010 timeline.

The report released today by the nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, Public Agenda, follows up on a groundbreaking 2002 survey and tracks immigrants’ shifting attitudes during a tumultuous period. Conducted in May 2009 and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Their Life in America, utilized landline and cellular telephones along with oversamples to provide the widest perspective possible from more than 1,100 foreign-born adults from around the world. In particular, the survey provides new insight into the views of undocumented immigrants and Mexican and Muslim immigrants.

“Immigrants infuse our society with energy, talent and renewed belief in our cherished institutions, the Constitution, the importance of an impartial justice system and participatory democracy,” said Vartan Gregorian, President of Carnegie Corporation of New York. “Their vitality, resilience, determination and the vibrant diversity they offer, nourishes us all.”

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Public Agenda has identified five key findings compared to immigrants’ viewpoints in 2002:

1. Concerns about discrimination have held stable and views of federal immigration services have improved.

* Since 2002, there’s been essentially no change in those who say there’s discrimination against immigrants in the U.S. (62 percent say “some” or “a great deal”). But far fewer immigrants overall say they’ve experienced much discrimination personally, with 25 percent reporting they’ve run into “some” or “a great deal.” (a small but significant 5-point drop since 2002).

* Mexican and other Latin American immigrants are more likely than any other groups to say there’s some or “a great deal” of discrimination against immigrants in the United States (75 percent of Mexicans and 72 percent of Central and South Americans). But they’re no more likely to experience discrimination personally.

* Muslim immigrants are less likely to say there’s much discrimination against immigrants. Some 64 percent of Muslim immigrants say there is little or no discrimination against immigrants, compared to 32 percent of other immigrants.

* Since 2002, the number of people giving positive ratings to federal immigration officials rose to 58 percent from 48 percent and 58 percent of immigrants say it is easy to get information about immigration and naturalization issues from the government, with 21 percent who say it’s “very easy.”

2. While economic worries may be taking a toll on overall satisfaction, economic and practical concerns are much more important reasons to become a citizen than they were in 2002.

* Among legal residents who are not U.S. citizens, the top reasons to become a citizen are “having equal rights and responsibilities” (80 percent) and the right to vote (78 percent).

* Yet there were significant increases in those who cite making it easier to get certain jobs (69 percent, up 14 points), to make it easier to travel (65 percent, up 14 points) and to qualify for government programs like Medicaid and food stamps (only 36 percent, the lowest on the scale, but still a 14-point increase from 2002).

* Half (52 percent) say it’s “very hard” to get a job without knowing English, and a sizable number of immigrants (45 percent) came here without knowing the language. But they’re aggressively trying to learn. Seven in 10 immigrants who knew very little or no English when they came to the United States say they’ve taken English classes, up 23 points from 2002.

* Dissatisfaction with the economy may be driving one significant change from 2002. While an overwhelming 87 percent say they’re happy with life in the U.S., the number who are “extremely happy” fell from 55 percent to 34 percent.

3. Strong majorities of immigrants surveyed said they made the right choice in coming to the United States.

* Majorities rated the U.S. as better than their birth country for earning a good living (88 percent), having a trusted legal system (70 percent), making good health care available (67 percent), having a good education system (62 percent), being a good place to raise children (55 percent) and on free speech (55 percent).

* Seven in 10 say they intend to make the U.S. their permanent home, and that given the chance they’d do it all over again (a nine point decline from 2002).

4. Even as ties to their birth country have grown stronger, immigrants say they can quickly adapt to the United States.

* 77 percent say they felt comfortable in the U.S. within five years, and nearly half said it took less than two years.

* The number of immigrants who say they call home at least once a week rose from 28 percent to 40 percent, perhaps due to improved telecommunications.

* Those who send money to the birth country “once in a while” increased 14 points, to 44 percent, while those who say they never send money fell from 55 percent to 37 percent.

5. Immigrants support a range of reform proposals, although support can change by age and ethnic group.

* Seven in ten (72 percent) say that the government should offer a path to citizenship, i.e. a way for illegal immigrants with no criminal record and who have shown a commitment to the United States to become citizens.

* Some 84 percent support a guest worker program, and 61 percent strongly favor it.

* Mexicans are more likely to support a path to citizenship (84 percent), compared to only 62 percent of Middle Easterners, 54 percent of East Asians, and 48 percent of South Asians in favor. Support also declines as people grow older: 85 percent of 18 to 29-year-olds favor the path to citizenship, but only 56 percent of those 65 and older do.

[Editor’s Note: “A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Their Life in America” can be read or downloaded here.]

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