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What Immigrants Say About Life in the United States
By Steve Farkas
The values and sentiments of immigrants — whether they are Latin
American, East Asian, Caribbean, or European — mirror those of
native-born Americans, according to new research carried out by the nonprofit,
nonpartisan research group Public Agenda.
The New York-based group conducted a comprehensive study of 1,002
randomly selected immigrants to the United States. Some of the key findings
from the study, entitled "Now That I'm Here: What America's Immigrants Have to
Say About Life in the US Today," are reported below.
Learning English Called Essential
One of the most surprising findings from the research is how insistent
immigrants are that learning English is critical for their success. Focus group
discussions made it clear that this conviction is driven by pragmatism and the
desire to be understood. Fully 85 percent say it is hard to get a good job or
do well in this country without learning English; only 12 percent say it is
easy. Some immigrants also see learning English as an ethical obligation.
Nearly two in three (65 percent) say "the US should expect all immigrants who
do not speak English to learn it," versus 31 percent who say this should be
left to each individual to decide.
"Now That I'm Here" is based on a national telephone survey of 1,002 foreign-born
adults aged 18 or older who came to live in the US when they were at least five years old.
The survey was offered in English and Spanish. The margin of error is plus or minus three
percentage points. The sample is drawn from two sources: 830 respondents were randomly
selected from a targeted sample representing 81 percent of foreign-born households in
the US; 172 respondents were drawn from pre-screened samples from previously conducted
Public Agenda surveys.
The survey was preceded by seven focus groups conducted in sites across the country,
including New York City, Los Angeles, Miami, Sioux Falls, SD, and Alexandria, VA. In
addition, 13 in-depth interviews were conducted with immigration experts in academia,
public policy, law, and community outreach.
These attitudes carry over to how immigrants want the nation's public
schools to educate children who do not speak English. By a substantial 63
percent to 32 percent margin respondents believe that "all public school
classes should be taught in English" rather than that "children of immigrants
should be able to take some courses in their native language." Mexican
immigrants, as a group, also believe it is important to learn English but they
feel less urgency: a bare 51 percent majority thinks that all public school
classes should be taught in English.
Immigrants' self-reported experiences with learning English are
particularly revealing. Only 37 percent of immigrants say they already had a
good command of English when they came to the United States. Among Mexican
immigrants the number drops to seven percent; among Caribbean immigrants it
goes up to 58 percent. Of immigrants who knew only enough English to get by or
did not speak it at all upon arrival, 29 percent now speak mostly English at
home and another 31 percent speak English and their native language about
equally. Almost half (47 percent) have taken classes to improve their language
skills. And 49 percent of those who came with limited or no English proficiency
say they can now read a newspaper or book in English very well.
Strong Work Ethic
Immigrants show deep commitment to the work ethic, once again reflecting
a historically prized American value. A large majority (73 percent) think it is
"extremely important" for immigrants "to work and stay off welfare." In focus
groups, many talked about the stark reality that greeted them when they first
came to the United States — and the understanding that, without hard
work, their dream of America as the land of plenty would not come true. In the
survey, eight in 10 (81 percent) say, "a person has to work very hard in this
country to make it — nobody gives you anything for free." Twenty-two
percent say that qualifying for government programs like Medicaid or food
stamps is or was a major reason for them to become a citizen.
In light of these attitudes toward work, it is not surprising that most
of the survey respondents work and that few rely on public aid. Almost seven in
10 (69 percent) immigrants were working full time, part time, or were
self-employed at the time of the survey. Only 18 percent report that they or
their families had received food stamps. Fewer (10 percent) say they had
received donations or free services from a charity or church. In contrast, more
than three in four (76 percent) have volunteered their time or contributed
money to a community organization or church. Only four percent report health
insurance coverage through Medicaid; 60 percent have private health insurance,
nine percent are covered through Medicare. Twenty-two percent reported having
no medical insurance.
Making the US Home
Immigrants display an appreciation of the US and a commitment to making
it their home, but they also maintain a strong connection to their country of
origin. Not surprisingly, many immigrants stay in touch with folks back home:
59 percent regularly phone family abroad and another 44 percent send money at
least once in a while. Respondents split 47 percent to 52 percent between those
who closely follow current events in their country of origin and those who do
But immigrants' desire to stay connected with people and events "back
home" does not contradict a desire to stay in their new home. In fact, 74
percent say they plan to stay in the US and only 18 percent say they will move.
Fully eight in 10 (80 percent) say they would still come to the US if they were
making the choice all over again. Sympathetic attachment to the US is strong:
80 percent say the US is a "unique country that stands for something special in
the world," versus 16 percent who say it is "just another country that is no
better or worse than any other." The overwhelming majority (70 percent) of
parents who have children under 18 say it is unlikely that their children would
want to live in their country of origin. Finally, about one in four (26
percent) say they or a member of their family has served on active duty in the
US armed forces.
The national origins of immigrants to America are changing in step with
both world events and evolving US policies. But regardless of their countries
of birth, they end up with a shared understanding — and appreciation
— of what it means to be an American. This can only bode well for
policymakers struggling to smoothly integrate immigrants into American society.
Steve Farkas is Senior Vice President of Public Agenda.
Note: The full study, funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York and
co-authored by Ann Duffett and Jean Johnson, reports immigrants' perceptions of
politics, discrimination, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and
immigration as well as other topics and is available online at
www.publicagenda.org. The attitudes of immigrant subgroups — Mexican,
non-Mexican Latino, European, East Asian and Caribbean — are broken out
in the report.
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