By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 6:02 PM
Nearly two-thirds of Latinos in the United States think they are being discriminated against, and a plurality view the backlash over illegal immigration as the central driver of such bias, according to a poll by the Pew Hispanic Center.
The poll also found that 70 percent of foreign-born Latinos think they are being held back by discrimination, and half of all Latinos think the United States has become less welcoming toward immigrants than it was just five years ago.
"More Latinos are seeing discrimination against Hispanics as a major problem," said Mark Hugo Lopez, associate director of the center, which released the findings Thursday.
The results of the survey - which was conducted in English and Spanish among 1,375 native- and foreign-born Latinos from Aug. 17 through Sept. 19 - come just days before midterm elections in which Latinos are expected to play an important role, particularly in the Florida gubernatorial and Senate races, and the Nevada Senate contest between Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D) and tea party favorite Sharron Angle.
Angle has come under fire for running ads in recent weeks that paint Latinos as menacing interlopers. Angle has denied that her campaign plays on nativist sentiment.
More than half of all Latinos told Pew pollsters they are worried that family members, close friends or they themselves could be deported - a measure of how deeply the issue of illegal immigration cuts across the 47 million-member U.S. Latino community.
Significantly more Latinos than in past surveys say that illegal immigrants are having a negative effect on Latinos, a measure of how the issue is simultaneously stirring and dividing the community.
Lopez said the survey did not ask whether Latinos thought that illegal immigrants were hurting the community by competing for jobs during a recession, or because the backlash against illegal Latino immigrants was affecting the wider community. Even so, more than three-quarters of Latinos think that immigration generally strengthens the United States, and Latinos appear to be more optimistic about the direction of the economy than the rest of the population.
Most Latinos - 86 percent - say that illegal immigrants should be offered a path to citizenship once they pass background checks, pay a fine and show proof of employment. Only 13 percent of Latinos think illegal immigrants should be deported.
The survey had some good news for Democrats: About 51 percent of Latinos favor Democratic policies on immigration, while 19 percent favor Republican policies. But previous surveys have also suggested that Latino enthusiasm and turnout in the midterms will be low. Participation in the election has been dampened by the absence of immigration reform and also because Latino turnout typically tends to fall during the midterms.
"We fully expect there will be surprises this fall and those surprises will clearly demonstrate the electoral power of our community," said Rudy Lopez, national field and political director at the advocacy group Center for Community Change, during a recent media briefing about Latino voters.
About four-fifths of Latinos disapprove of Arizona's immigration law and efforts to deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants.
Although immigration generates strong views, Latinos do not think it is the most pressing issue facing the nation. Along with many other voters, Latinos rank education, jobs and health care above immigration as pressing concerns.