Hispanics Feeling Heat Of Immigration Debate

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 14, 2007

Regardless of their immigration status, Hispanics across the United States are feeling anxious and discriminated against amid the intensifying debate over immigration and stepped-up enforcement by authorities, according to a study of the nation's largest minority group released yesterday.

More than half of the 2,003 Hispanic adults surveyed by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center said they worry that they or a close friend or family member might be deported, and nearly two-thirds believed that Congress's failure to pass a bill restructuring immigration law this year has made life more difficult for all Latinos.

"What we have here is a portrait of a population that is feeling vulnerable in the current political and policy climate," said Paul Taylor, acting director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "And what's interesting is that it's not just true of the foreign born but of the native born, including many people who have been here for generations."

Though the federal government has substantially increased enforcement actions such as workplace raids over the past five years, the numbers arrested through such actions remain infinitesimal compared to the almost 8 million undocumented immigrants in the workforce.

Nonetheless, noted Taylor, "as part of tried and true enforcement policy, a number of raids in the last year or so have been very high profile. . . . So in some ways, the actual numbers [arrested] may underestimate the changed reality as it is perceived by people in the Latino community."

The poll also found significant differences between Latinos' and non-Latinos' opinions on the recent crackdown, including efforts by state and local governments.

For instance, 20 percent of Hispanics approved of workplace raids, compared with 51 percent of non-Hispanics; 14 percent of Hispanics approved of local police taking an active role in immigration enforcement, while non-Hispanics were evenly divided on the issue; and 40 percent of Hispanics approved of states checking immigration status before issuing driver's licenses, compared with 85 percent of non-Hispanics.

Latinos, who number 44 million and account for 15 percent of the U.S. population, are a diverse group: Almost half of adults are U.S.-born, less than a third are foreign-born but in the country legally, and about a quarter are illegal immigrants.

Though less substantial than the difference in views between Latinos and non-Latinos, the study revealed significant gaps within the Hispanic community on a range of topics.

For example, 82 percent of foreign-born Hispanics believed that illegal immigrants help the economy, compared with 64 percent of native-born Hispanics. Still, that is up from five years ago, when 54 percent of native-born Hispanics said the impact of illegal immigrants was positive. It is also substantially higher than the 40 percent of non-Hispanics with a favorable view of illegal immigrants' effect on the economy.

Similarly, noncitizen Latinos -- who account for 39 percent of the adult Hispanic population -- were twice as likely as Latinos who are U.S. citizens to worry about deportation and to feel a negative personal impact from the heightened attention.

Among the Latinos who reported experiencing discrimination, which is about half overall, 12 percent said they have had more trouble getting or keeping a job; 15 percent said they have had increased difficulty finding or keeping housing; 19 percent said they have been asked to produce documents to prove their immigration status more often than in the past; 22 percent said they are less likely to use government services; and 24 percent said they are less likely to travel abroad.

More than half of Latinos surveyed said that discrimination is a major problem keeping them from succeeding in the United States -- up from 44 percent in 2002, though slightly down from 58 percent in 2006. But there was no clear consensus on whether their overall situation in the United States has gotten better or worse over the past year.

Despite their anxieties over immigration, Latinos surveyed said they are generally content with their lives and upbeat about the future.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company