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What Immigrants Say About Life in the United States
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.
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 U.S. Home
Immigrants display an appreciation of the U.S. 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 not.
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 U.S. and only 18 percent say they will move. Fully eight in 10 (80 percent) say they would still come to the U.S. if they were making the choice all over again. Sympathetic attachment to the U.S. is strong: 80 percent say the U.S. 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 U.S. armed forces.
The national origins of immigrants to America are changing in step with both world events and evolving U.S. 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.
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.