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Now That I'm Here

What America's Immigrants Have to Say about Life in the U.S. Today

By Steve Farkas, Ann Duffett, and Jean Johnson with Leslie Moye and Jackie Vine

Now That I'm Here, a new poll of America's immigrants, comes at a time when the American public as a whole appears to be rethinking the country's openness to immigration. Surveys over the last decade suggest that the public has consistently held mixed views about immigrants. People are often quick to say that immigrants are hardworking and, according to one recent Public Agenda survey, most Americans believe they are particularly appreciative of the country's freedoms.1

Yet there also have been elements of doubt. Other surveys have revealed broad public feeling that immigration burdens the country,2 and there is long-standing frustration about lax enforcement of immigration law.3 In fact, a recent CBS News/New York Times poll showed that half (53 percent) of the public believes that most immigrants who came to the U.S. in the last few years are in the country illegally,4 although official estimates suggest the percentage of undocumented or illegal immigrants is closer to 26 percent.5 For Now That I'm Here, we used random sampling techniques to explore the opinions of those who have come from other countries to live in the U.S. We asked immigrants about their hopes and aspirations and their sense of what it means to be "an American." If the country is now poised to rethink immigration more broadly, it seems to us only fair that immigrants themselves be given a voice.

Now That I'm Here vividly captures an immigrant population that is thankful and appreciative of its adopted nation. The admiration and affection immigrants display is neither unthinking nor unsophisticated. It is anchored in the view that the U.S. holds the comparative advantage over their home countries in some crucially important areas, and these are not limited to economic considerations. It is also moderated by the sacrifices and struggles they've experienced.

Freedom Reigns

The focus group conversations with immigrants would typically follow this pattern: an initial outpouring of affection for this country would be followed by candid talk about the nation's shortcomings and would end with a bottom-line assessment—its problems notwithstanding, there is no place better than the U.S. in which to build their home.

Underlying this attitude is their sense that while the U.S. is not perfect, it is far better than what they have experienced. Fully 80 percent of immigrants say they consider the U.S. to be "a unique country that stands for something special in the world"; only 16 percent say it's no better or worse than any other nation. The immigrants who spoke to us in the focus groups sometimes spoke in halting English, and some had to be interviewed in Spanish; but they expressed thankfulness for being here with a ringing clarity. A comment from an immigrant living in New York encapsulates the feeling that was so prevalent in the focus groups: "It is the best country in the world—with its bad and good things. We have the right to vote. Women do not need to wear a veil to go out. If someone hits you on the street, you just have to call the first cop, and it's okay, he is going to take care of you. Freedom really does exist in America."

poll charts

"I Bless America"

Regrets are few for the overwhelming majority of people who have immigrated to the U.S. and made the country their home. If they had the chance to do it all again, 8 in 10 (80 percent) say they would come to the U.S. Virtually all say they are happy with life here: 55 percent say they are extremely happy and 41 percent say somewhat happy. Only 2 percent, barely 20 people out of 1,000, say they are generally disappointed with life in America.

We often heard immigrants talk about the U.S. in admiring, even glowing, terms. "My dream was always to come to America," said a woman who emigrated from Bolivia many years ago. "I was 19 years old, and I said to my parents, 'I'm leaving.' I love this country. I don't regret it for a minute." "I owe the U.S. everything," said an Ethiopian man. A woman from Mexico said, "I bless America. It gave me a life. I didn't have anything over there."

Here to Stay

Some pundits ask whether today's newcomers have a lukewarm commitment to the country, a sort of one foot in, one foot out mentality. This half-hearted commitment to the American way of life, critics say, can be seen in the number of immigrants who come here only to work and send their money back "home," or in the pains some immigrant parents take to keep their children connected to their original language and culture to the exclusion of speaking English and adopting American customs.

Are immigrants coming here to say? Nearly 3 out of 4 (74 percent) say it's most likely that the U.S. will be their permanent home; only 15 percent think that some day they "will go back to live in the country where [they] were born." A man from the Philippines who came here when he was in his late teens described it this way: "It's like all my life belongs here. Even though I went back to the Philippines to visit, my feeling inside is still in the U.S., where my home is."

Who Am I?

The question of identity is an important indication of commitment, and to most immigrants being an American is an important part of their self-definition. "I'm American, 100 percent," said a woman from South America, and the survey findings strongly suggest that many immigrants feel the same. We gave survey participants two opportunities to tell us the degree to which they have taken on an American identity.

On the first occasion, immigrants were asked to choose among three statements that come closest to describing them: 42 percent chose "I have become an American," and a sizable number (41 percent) took a middle position of "I act like an American outside, but at home I keep my own culture and traditions." Only 14 percent said "I live here, but I don't consider myself an American." As a Peruvian woman explained, "The key to live in this country—you have to follow the rules outside and leave your traditions at home. My food, my religion, all these things I have to make my family stronger. But outside, I have to follow all the rules, the law."

On the second occasion, immigrants were asked if they mostly think of themselves in terms of the nationality they were born to or as an American, and more than half (54 percent) said they mostly think of themselves as Americans. A man from El Salvador clarified: "I strongly consider myself an American. By saying I'm American I'm not talking about race, I'm talking a state of mind. I owe this country a lot of things. The opportunities in this country, there are no other countries in the world like this one." Twenty-two percent said that they mostly think of themselves in terms of the country where they were born, and about the same proportion (23 percent) said that they consider themselves to be both equally. As one Mexican man put it: "I think like an American, but I'm Mexican."

Bonds That Tie

But to simultaneously cherish America and one's own heritage has been an honored tradition, and this blending is part and parcel of life for many immigrants. Many immigrants do maintain a strong bond with the country where they were born. More than half (59 percent) phone family or friends in their home country at least a few times a month, and 44 percent send money back to their family at least once in a while. Almost half (47 percent) say they follow current events, such as sports or politics, in their home country. Finally, almost 1 in 3 (32 percent) hold dual citizenship.

In a focus group in Northern Virginia, one woman said, "I love Peru so much, because all my family is over there.... But I feel that the U.S. gave me the opportunity to achieve in my career, to reach what was my dream. I cannot deny it. I do love this country, and I respect a lot of the same things in my country." Perhaps inevitably, these connections appear to weaken across generations. The overwhelming majority (70 percent) of parents who have children under 18 years of age say it's unlikely that their own children would want to live in the country of their parents.

Old Immigrants, New Immigrants

The connections also appear to weaken over time. The survey shows that "more settled" immigrants (those here for 20 years or more) are consistently more likely than new immigrants (those here for less than 5 years) to grow distant from their country of origins.

Not surprisingly, more settled immigrants are more likely than newcomers to say, "I have become American" (58 percent vs. 18 percent). Meanwhile, newcomers have stronger ties to their nations of origin. Newcomers are more likely to follow current events in their home country (63 percent vs. 40 percent); to phone family or friends back home at least a few times a month (87 percent vs. 45 percent); and to send money back to their family at least once in a while (52 percent vs. 33 percent). Newcomers are also more likely to think that someday they will go back to live in the country where they were born (39 percent vs. 8 percent). A woman from New York had this to say: "I originally came out to work...and I thought I'd earn lots of money, and then go back and set myself up in business.... That was 21 years ago."

Again, these differences are hardly surprising. Some observers might argue that such differences point to a lack of commitment on the part of the new wave of immigrants to the U.S. But assimilation—by definition—takes time. This survey is a snapshot of where immigrants, both newcomers and more settled, stand today. Only time will tell where the present cohort of newcomers will be in 20 years.

So What's So Good About America?

Common wisdom holds that economic opportunity is the magnet that draws immigrants to this country. But our findings show that while this is certainly true, it's only part of the story. Asked to choose which is personally most important to them when they think about living in the U.S., 37 percent do point to "the opportunity to work and make a living," but a slightly larger proportion of immigrants (40 percent) say it's "the personal freedom to live your life the way you choose." Another 18 percent say that "the political freedoms like voting or freedom of speech" are most important to them.

As we will see in this finding, immigrants appreciate the U.S. on many levels. They can also point to areas where the U.S. falls short. When respondents were asked to compare the U.S. to their home country on 11 specific criteria—from economic opportunity to trust in government—majorities give the nod to the U.S. on 7 of the 11. But in some areas, such as civility and the overall way people treat one another, immigrants are noticeably less enthusiastic about the U.S.

Here vs. There

When it comes to the following, which is better? The country where you were born, the U.S., or are they about the same?

% of immigrants who say:   The  
  U.S. 
Country
of birth
About
the same
Having more opportunity to earn a good living 88% 4% 7%
Women's rights 68% 5% 23%
Making good health care available 67% 18% 11%
Having a legal system you can trust 67% 6% 19%
Having an honest government 62% 6% 24%
Having a good education system 60% 18% 18%
Having respect for people with very different lifestyles and backgrounds 52% 15% 27%
Being a good place to raise children 49% 22% 24%
Treating new immigrants well 47% 14% 27%
Letting people practice the religion they choose 46% 6% 44%
People being nice to each other 32% 27% 37%

 

"Everybody Wants to Come Here"

Almost 9 in 10 immigrants (88 percent) say the U.S. is better than their own country when it comes to "having more opportunity to earn a good living," compared to barely a handful (4 percent) who say their birth country is better. "Everybody wants to come here," said a man from Bosnia. "It's the land of opportunity." In the survey, people were asked to describe in their own words the main reason they had for coming to America. For 20 percent of immigrants, the first thing that came to mind was economic opportunity; another 22 percent mentioned things such as "to make a better life" or "to have a brighter future for my children." As one man said, "Because you can have a better life. I have a wife and daughter, and they can have a better life too."

"They Had a Husband Picked for Me"

Skirmishes over admitting women to the Augusta golf club or comparable pay for comparable work indicate that women's rights is not a settled issue in the U.S. But it's clear to immigrants that the U.S. is ahead of many other countries: An overwhelming 68 percent to 5 percent margin says the U.S. is better than their birth country when it comes to women's rights. Immigrants from Mexico are even more likely to feel this way (85 percent).

A female survey respondent, when asked her biggest reason for coming to this country, replied, "I ran away from home because they had a husband picked for me." In a focus group, a woman described why her mother emigrated from Colombia: "If she stayed, being a widow, she didn't have much control over her life. Here, as a secretary, she felt she had more chances, more opportunities as a woman alone."

The Reasons Why

Is the following a major reason, or not a reason at all for becoming a citizen?

% of immigrants who say: Major
 reason 
Minor
 reason 
Not a
 reason 
at all
To get the right to vote 76% 15% 8%
To have better legal rights and protection in the U.S. 70% 16% 12%
To show a commitment and pride in being an American 65% 21% 10%
I would not have to worry about immigration status 58% 20% 19%
To make it easier to get certain jobs 55% 22% 22%
To make it easier to travel in and out of the U.S. 51% 26% 21%
To make it easier to bring other family members to this country 36% 24% 38%
To qualify for government programs like Medicaid and food stamps 22% 20% 54%

 

In Mexico, You Know Who Will Win the Election

By overwhelming margins, immigrants are more likely to say the U.S. is better than their own country on matters such as "having a legal system you can trust" (67 percent vs. 6 percent) and "having an honest government" (62 percent vs. 6 percent). A man from Mexico said about his native country: "You have an election every four years, but you know ahead who is going to win."

"In the U.S., they go by the laws," said a woman who makes her home in Miami. "In Chile, there's always ways to go around it if you have money, under the table." "There is no country like the U.S.," said a man from East Africa. "It starts because of the Constitution of the U.S. ... it is clear to anybody, so nobody can violate. That's why this country has become very important for a lot of people.... Our countries, they have constitution, but the constitution is not on the table to serve the people."

"He Can Say He's Gay"

The U.S. is also perceived as better when it comes to "having respect for people with very different lifestyles" (52 percent) and "letting people practice the religion they choose" (46 percent). The pro-U.S. percentages are not overwhelming because many immigrants say the U.S. and their home country are about the same (27 percent and 44 percent respectively). There is an eye-catching difference among immigrants from the Middle East who, of course, can be of any religion: by a 67 percent to 5 percent margin, they say religious freedom is stronger in the U.S. than it is back home. Although speculative because of the small number of Middle Eastern respondents, this suggests that regardless of any fallout from September 11, tolerance is still perceived to be stronger here.

One woman from Chile poignantly described her cousin's predicament: "My cousin is gay, and he had to leave Chile because if you're gay you can't be open. He can live freely; he can say he's gay. That's something about the U.S. that's very positive. You can be whatever culture you are, whatever religion you are, freely."

Even Health Care and Education

Health care and education are routinely at the top of the public's list of things that need improving in this country. But when they think about what they left behind, most immigrants give these two American institutions better marks than their home country. Immigrants give the nod to the U.S. over their native country when it comes to "making good health care available" by a 67 percent to 18 percent margin. A similar margin (60 percent vs. 18 percent) also says the U.S. has a better education system. Perhaps not surprisingly, European immigrants are not as impressed with the quality of America's system of education (only 38 percent say it's better than their own country's) or its system of health care (37 percent say it's better).

People Could Be Nicer

But even in a comparative perspective, America is hardly perfect in the minds of immigrants. In their view, the U.S. fails to shine when it comes to "people being nice to each other"—only 32 percent say the U.S. is better than their home country. And immigrants are keenly aware of anti-immigrant discrimination in the U.S. An Asian immigrant in Los Angeles learned that America could be harsh to people who don't learn to fight back: "If you let people intimidate you, they will. You have to stand up for yourself. At the beginning when I came here, I didn't really speak up. When you have been taken advantage of a lot, then you learn to speak up for yourself."

This is probably more than a simple case of nostalgia for the old country. A study of the general public conducted by Public Agenda in 2002—Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America—showed that a majority of Americans believe that a lack of respect and rudeness is on the rise in the U.S. today. Four in 10 (41 percent) even admitted that they themselves are sometimes part of the problem.6

Kids Here Do Whatever They Want

And although the plurality of immigrants (49 percent to 22 percent) think the U.S. is better than their home country "when it comes to being a good place to raise children," it may be telling that the views of Caribbean immigrants diverge: A slight plurality give the nod to their home country (40 percent) over the U.S. (37 percent). Several focus group interviews suggested that concerns over children's character, discipline, and respect were the driving force behind this difference. One woman recalled her parents postponing the family's reunification so that their kids finished school back home: "Finish high school then bring them here because they realized that high school here is not as disciplined as it is in Jamaica. Kids here just get to do whatever they want to." Another recent Public Agenda study—A Lot Easier Said Than Done—documented the sense among a cross-section of America's parents that their own kids fall short on critical character traits.

"Everything Is About Money"

The immigrants we spoke with had other doubts. Some, for example, would point out that without money, little progress is possible in the U.S. After all, no one gives you anything for free. There was even a price to getting onto a beach, complained one Brazilian: "Everything is about money," he said. "Last weekend I went to the beach and I thought it was absurd to pay $6, and it's a very bad beach. They charge for everything. Nothing is free."

Skepticism about politics and politicians was also rampant. Said one focus group participant, "The people who don't have money don't have a say." Nor are immigrants unwilling to critique American foreign policy. Half (51 percent) said that "the U.S. is too pushy in how it treats other countries around the world," compared to 36 percent who disagree.

A Perspective People Born Here Don't Have

Immigrants are certainly not looking at America through rose-colored glasses. They do not suspend critical judgment or overlook the nation's shortcomings. But this study captures an alert appreciation for what this country offers.

Immigrants sometimes contrasted their own appreciation for life in the U.S. with their sense that native-born Americans often take it for granted. One Latino immigrant in Los Angeles captured it: "For most of the people I talk to, white people, they don't appreciate anything. A guy at my job was telling me, 'We don't care about government.' I said, 'Why? I care for a lot of things, for the law, for propositions, for stuff like that.' He says, 'My dad had this and that. My son and wife have everything. Why should I care?' I tell him, 'You don't care because you haven't suffered. You haven't been through what I have been.' He said, 'Yes, probably I would appreciate it more if I were like you guys.'"

More than anything, it is the concrete sense of perspective from having a point of comparison that centers the affectionate judgment of immigrants toward their new country. As one immigrant said: "It's not a perfect society, but it's good. It's better than my own country. It's worth it."


Steve Farkas is director of research with Public Agenda, where Ann Duffett is associate director of research, Jean Johnson is director of programs, Leslie Moye is research administrator, and Jackie Vine is senior research associate. Public Agenda is a non-profit organization that studies citizens' opinions on key policy issues and develops materials to help citizens make more informed decisions. This article presents the first chapter of a report by Public Agenda of the same name and is reprinted by permission of Public Agenda. For more information about Public Agenda's national survey on immigrants in America (including ordering information) and other research, please contact Public Agenda at 212/686-6610, fax 212/889-3461, e-mail info@publicagenda.org or visit www.publicagenda.org.


Endnotes

1. Farkas, Steve, Jean Johnson, et al. Knowing It By Heart: Americans Consider the Constitution and its Meaning, Public Agenda, 2002. "Compared to other Americans, do you think that immigrants have more appreciation for the Constitution and its rights and freedoms (57 percent), less appreciation (23 percent), or is there no difference (13 percent)?" Don't Know (7 percent).

2. See, for example, Gallup Poll. National telephone survey of 1,008 adults, conducted September 11-13, 2000. "Which comes closer to your point of view—immigrants in the long run become productive citizens and pay their fair share of taxes (48 percent) or immigrants cost the taxpayers too much by using government services like public education and medical services (40 percent)?" No opinion (12 percent).

3. See, for example, Center for Immigration Studies. National telephone survey of 1,018 adult likely voters, conducted September 15-16, 2001. "Do you think the government is doing enough (18 percent) or not enough (77 percent) to control the border and to screen people allowed into the country?" Don't Know (5 percent).

4. CBS News/New York Times Poll. National telephone survey of 1,052 adults, conducted December 7-10, 2001. "Do you think most of the people who have moved to the United States in the last few years are here legally (29 percent), or are most of them here illegally (53 percent)?" Half & half (volunteered response, 3 percent); Don't Know/No Answer (15 percent).

5. Center for Immigration Studies. "Eight Million Illegal Aliens in 2000: Census Bureau Finding Raises Concern Over Border Control in Light of Terrorist Threat," October 24, 2001.

6. Farkas, Steve, Jean Johnson, et al. Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America, Public Agenda, 2002. "Do you think that Americans used to treat each other with more respect and courtesy in the past (73 percent), or is this just nostalgia for a past that never existed (21 percent)?" Don't know (6 percent). "And have you yourself ever been rude and disrespectful?" Yes (41 percent); No (59 percent); Don't know (1 percent).