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Poll Of U.S. Latinos Offers Snapshot Of Immigrant Vs. Nonimmigrant Experience

Spectators react as they watch the Dominican Day Parade in New York City last summer.
Tina Fineberg
Spectators react as they watch the Dominican Day Parade in New York City last summer.

Our poll on the life experiences of Latino Americans underscored just how different those experiences can be. But many of the most interesting comparisons among our respondents were between folks who were born here in the United States or Puerto Rico and those who were born elsewhere and came here later. A little more than half of the nearly 1,500 participants said they were born outside the U.S., a proportion roughly consistent with the breakdown in the larger U.S. population. (The specific percentage born outside the U.S. varied among the different Latino subgroups in our sample — Mexicans, Dominicans, Central Americans, South Americans and Cubans — and when it came to the ages at which they arrived in the U.S.)

The researchers identified immigrants by asking respondents first if they were Latino and then if they were born in the United States or Puerto Rico. Those who weren't the latter were classified as "immigrants," although we acknowledge that the term is somewhat imperfect. (The pollsters did not ask about respondents' citizenship status.)

The U.S.: Expectations Vs. Reality

Immigrants listed several major reasons for coming to the U.S. Eight in 10 said one reason was to have a better life, while strong majorities said they came for a better job or other economic motives, or to live in a safer community. About half said they came to join family members already in the country, and around a third said they wanted better health care.

So what did they find when they got here? On a bunch of measures — like opportunities to get ahead, safety from crime and violence, treatment of the poor, quality of schools and women's legal rights — strong majorities of immigrants gave the U.S. higher marks than their native countries. But smaller percentages rated the U.S. better than their countries of origin by other measures: Less than 40 percent said the same about the moral values of society, the strength of family, the friendliness and openness of people, and relations between different races and ethnic groups.

/ Walter Olivares
Walter Olivares

And there were some fascinating tidbits when the data here were broken out. Cuban immigrants were much more likely than other groups to answer affirmatively on the question of whether the amount of political freedom was better in the U.S. than in their home country — 95 percent said so — than were immigrants of Mexican heritage. Only 55 percent of Mexican immigrants felt the same way. On the flip side, Mexicans overwhelmingly gave the U.S. higher marks than back home when it came to safety from crime and violence — 82 percent compared with 51 percent of Cubans.

One more factoid: While most Latino immigrants felt their diets in the U.S. were as healthy or healthier than their diets in their countries of origin, Cubans were far more likely than Dominicans, Mexicans and people of South American heritage to say their diets were healthier in the U.S.

Prospects For The Future

Immigrants were more optimistic about their children's future prospects than were U.S.-born Latinos. More than 90 percent said their children were likely to have better employment opportunities. And 90 percent said their children would have better educational opportunities than they themselves had. But among the native-born, those numbers were 68 percent and 55 percent, respectively.

In the short-term, though, the poll found that immigrants felt more economically insecure than the native-born. They were significantly more likely to say their finances were not so good or poor, and nearly 60 percent of employed immigrants said they were concerned that they or someone in their household would be out of work in the next 12 months. Two-thirds said they weren't confident that they had adequate money or health insurance to pay for a major illness, and they were more likely than the native-born to say they didn't have insurance at some point over the preceding 12 months.

/ Walter Olivares
Walter Olivares

Other Interesting Findings

  • Not too surprisingly, there was a big gap between the percentage of immigrant respondents who said they spoke Spanish or mostly Spanish at home (69 percent) and the native-born who said the same (18 percent).
  • Immigrants reported being more religious — the native-born were more likely to say religion was somewhat, not too important, or not at all important to their lives. (Forty-one percent said so, compared with 30 percent of immigrants.) Among the religious, majorities of both groups identified as Roman Catholic, but immigrants were more heavily so (71 percent to 56 percent).
  • Immigrants were more likely than the native-born to say their local entertainment venues were excellent or good.
  • About 7 in 10 folks from both groups said they were better off financially than were their parents.
  • On the question of homeownership, there was no major statistical difference between the native-born and immigrants. Both groups were about as likely to own their homes as opposed to renting.
  • There are lots of fascinating data to be found in the full report, which you can see here, and you can see our Twitter chat on our findings at #LatinoViews.

    Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.