Thursday, March 18, 2010

Guest Post: Scott Bittle -- Listening to Immigrants, Instead of Talking About Them

For a people who pride themselves on being "a nation of immigrants," Americans have enormous difficulty seeing them clearly. The trends have been going on for some time: one in 10 Americans is now foreign-born, and more and more immigrants are settling beyond the traditional "gateway states" into parts of the country that haven't  traditionally had many immigrants.

In surveys, most Americans say they have contact with immigrants in their daily lives. We should know immigrants. They're here, and they're playing an  ever-larger role in American society. But you wouldn't know from our  overheated public debate, where you'd think we were discussing strangers, or worse, archetypes. Immigrants are discussed as if  they're all heroes, heirs to a noble tradition and key to a brighter future, or all threats, risks to our jobs and security. We talk "about" immigrants much more than we talk "to" /them. Perhaps that's one reason why this issue has remained stalled for so long. We're flying  blind.

With major demonstrations set for this weekend, and immigration reform groups insisting the Obama administration do something, it's worth revisiting what immigrants themselves say about their lives. Here's  four things policymakers ought to know about immigrants before they act, all taken from Public Agenda's pioneering survey of immigrants, 

A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Life in America.   We asked both legal and undocumented immigrants about their lives in America. These points aren't always part of the immigration debate –  but they should be. 

Immigrants say they fit in quickly. More than three-quarters say it took fewer than five years for them to feel comfortable in the United States, and nearly half said it took less than two years. Significant numbers (45 percent) came here without being able to speak English, and more than half still consider their language skills fair or poor. But they're trying: strong majorities say they're taking English classes. 

They believe discrimination against immigrants is real, but it mostly happens to "the other guy." Immigrants believe there's discrimination against them – six in 10 say there's at least some in society. But only about one in 10 say they've experienced a great deal of  discrimination personally. Mexican immigrants are more likely to  believe there's discrimination in society, but they're no more likely to experience it themselves. 

Their views on illegal or undocumented immigrants are almost the mirror image of the general public. The Gallup poll finds that most Americans, about 63 percent, believe illegal immigrants cost the taxpayers more in services than they bring in by taxes in the long run. When we asked the exact same question to immigrants, we found the  reverse: 57 percent of immigrants told us illegal immigrants end up becoming productive citizens in the long run.  But immigrants, like the public, aren't a monolith on this question, and their answer depends on their own background. Younger immigrants and Mexican immigrants are more likely to say undocumented immigrants become productive citizens, while older and Asian immigrants are less  likely to believe this.

 They're happy here, and they're mostly here to stay. More than seven in 10 immigrants we surveyed would "do it all over again," and just as many say they plan to make the United States their permanent home.  Strong majorities rate the United States as better than their birth countries on factors like earning a good living and having a trustworthy legal system. But economic pressures are weighing on immigrants, just like everyone else, and fewer say they'd do it all over again compared to the last time we surveyed immigrants in 2002.

The bottom line is, this is decidedly not a disaffected group. Whatever challenges they face in America, it's not enough to turn them off. We could, I suppose, avoid dealing with immigration policy this year –  our political system has an impressive track record of failing to deal with difficult problems in recent years. But we can't avoid dealing with the immigrants themselves. To craft a just and practical policy,  we need to at least try to see America through the immigrant's eyes. That's true whether you favor an open door or a higher fence. Because  whether you want to embrace immigrants or push them away, you need to  understand them first.

Scott Bittle is the Director of Public Issues Analysis at Public Agenda and the lead author of “A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants  Say Now About Life in America,” prepared with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The full report can be found at: http://www.publicagenda.org/pages/immigrants./

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