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Latino Immigrants Find A Better Life In U.S., Poll Says


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, the compelling personal story of Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis helped raise her national profile. But she now concedes some details of that story might be inaccurate. The Beauty Shop ladies weigh in. That's later.

But first, Latinos are expected to become the largest nonwhite racial group in the U.S. by the year 2050. And many of them are immigrants who come to the U.S. in search of a better life. Now research shows most of them are finding it. That's according to a new poll out this month from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health. Joining us to talk about this new data is Robert Blendon, codirector of the poll and a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard University School of Public Health. He joins us from Boston. Also with us is Rey Junco, an associate professor of library science at Purdue University and a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. He joins us from the studios of WBAA in West Lafayette, Indiana. Welcome to both of you.


HEADLEE: Robert, let's start with your poll that shows Latino immigrants are actually happier here than in their home countries and report having better lives here in the U.S. How exactly did you measure this happiness and better life?

BLENDON: So it's important - the poll was an opportunity for people to, in their own voices, talk about their lives and their communities. So those who were born in another country, we asked them why they came here. And overwhelmingly, it was for a better life. And then we asked them to compare on more than a dozen different issues whether or not the situation in the United States was better than the country they had left or about the same.

And on most of the measures, overwhelmingly, people said that the opportunities in the United States were much better than the country they had left - opportunities to get ahead, safety from crime and violence, women's legal rights, quality of the schools, quality of health care, amount of political freedom. And every one of them, you're talking about more than 6, 7, or even 8 in 10 saying it's better in the United States than the country that I had left. There are a small number of issues, which are social and community where people didn't necessarily say that they were better in other countries, but they were not better in the U.S.


BLENDON: Moral values of the society and community.


BLENDON: The strength of people's families, friendliness and openness of people, receptivity in relationships to people of different races - they didn't see as better in the United States. But on most measures, overwhelmingly, they said we came here for a better life...

HEADLEE: And we got it.

BLENDON: ...And it's working out.

HEADLEE: Rey Junco, what's your response to this? Not only this, but especially some of the cultural differences on anxieties. Overall, many people reported a better life for immigrants than their home country, but on the whole, there were also a lot of worries about money, about security and there were stark differences between those who came from say Cuba as opposed to those who came from Central America and those who came from Mexico, why?

REY JUNCO: Well, certainly, there seems to be a difference between the immigrants and the non-immigrants in lots of these variables including the satisfaction in the area in which they live.

HEADLEE: In other words, if you interview, say, a Dominican also living in New York and a Cuban living in New York, there's going to be a difference in how secure they feel and their hope for being able to succeed.

JUNCO: Well, I don't know if that's the case. Is that the case, Robert? Did you see - did you see some substantial differences between...

BLENDON: Well, so it's not for...

JUNCO: ...The groups in an area?

BLENDON: ...Succeed. Cuban-Americans were more economically insecure. But there's a point where it's making here - the overwhelming majority of Cubans live in the state of Florida. And so many of the findings of the poll may relate to some of the unique economic situations faced by Florida. And particularly, over half of them live in Miami-Dade County, which has had very sharp economic problems, housing problems. So part of the life differences have to do with the fact that people are actually living in different parts of the United States.

HEADLEE: Rey, you've done a lot of research into generational differences, especially how that's affected by technology use and comfort with technology. Why are children of Latino immigrants, those born here in the U.S., so much better off economically than their parents? Is it because of the use of technology?

JUNCO: Well, I think a big part of that is the educational system and the educational opportunities that they have. So 80 percent of the immigrants who responded to the survey were over 30 years old. They were also much more likely than non-immigrants to never have graduated high schools. And they come here to have a better life, quote unquote. Seventy-one percent say the quality of the schools are better here. So it stands to reason that their children are having much better opportunities. I think the role that technology plays can be a major one. It can help the children of immigrants develop their identity as immigrant-Americans or as Latino-Americans, learn more about American culture, services, build social capital in ways that the immigrants who originally came here, their parents, might not be able to do.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Latino immigrants in the United States and how their experiences differ from non-immigrant Latinos. We're joined by Robert Blendon of Harvard University and Rey Junco, who you just heard, of Purdue University. Robert, since Rey brought up the issue of education, there is a difference - there seems to be a difference at least in views on education and perspectives on education in immigrants versus non-immigrants. How do we explain that?

BLENDON: So I think it's important to understand what happens. For people born in another country, they're thinking about the experiences in education and everything of what their children might have faced if they had stayed in the country. For Latinos who were born in the United States, they're thinking about not only their parents, but they're comparing themselves to non-Latino-Americans and what the opportunities and choices. And so there's a switch in who you're measuring yourself against. For people who are immigrants, they are unbelievably optimistic that their children will have a better education than they do. For people who are non-immigrants, they are optimists but nowhere as much.

But they are comparing themselves not to a country they weren't born in. They're comparing themselves to their experience in the United States and whether or not their kids can catch up to middle-class Americans who may have had different experiences. So they're less optimistic, but their comparisons are mainstream Americans, where the immigrants' comparisons are thinking back to what it was for themselves and their own parents. And they see America's clearly offering them more than what they had left.

HEADLEE: You know, Rey, there's many things that we can take away from this research that we already knew, right? I mean, we know that Hispanics are not a monolithic group. But what did you take away from this that you thought was surprising? Was there any results coming out of this that really kind of gave you a pause?

JUNCO: I don't think there were any major surprises for me. I think that the piece about immigrants feeling a little bit less confident that they'll have a better outlook. I think that was interesting. I think some of the differences between the groups of Latinos were certainly interesting. For instance, Cubans reported doing better with their finances and having higher educational levels, but they were also much more concerned than other groups when it came to economic issues or whether they would lose their jobs within the next 12 months.

HEADLEE: Robert, what kind of things came out of this that you found surprising or that you hadn't considered before?

BLENDON: Well, one of the things we didn't mention, for instance, in discussing immigrants and non-immigrants, people who are Puerto Rican in the United States, who are considered Latinos, they're all born as U.S. citizens. So the issues of immigration are not the issues of the immigrant community in the way we would think about it. And they are mostly settled in the Northeast with the exception of some part of Florida. So the experiences are really very different. The big take away from immigrants and non-immigrants is that with all the promise of the United States that Latinos, who have lived here for many years, faced, for those in other countries, it's still a chance to have a very different, better life. And they're very optimistic.

Even the people who are not immigrant-Latinos are still quite optimistic for their family. And I think in American culture and politics, one of the things that we're going to see is that there are many differences Latinos will bring. But they have a sense of optimism about the future, which I think is going to have an important impact on American culture. Even though they're not as optimistic as people who first come here, they have a lot of faith that their kids and opportunities will be better. And that's going to impact on the culture of the United States overtime.

HEADLEE: All right. I wanted to take a moment before we leave and, Rey, address something, which I have to imagine is on your mind this morning, which was, of course the shooting at Purdue University yesterday when - in the College of Engineering - one senior actually opened fire and another student, Andrew Boldt, was killed. I'm wondering what today, on the day after - and I understand the suspect was taken into custody and is going to be due in court today - what's happening on the campus today and how are people handling it?

JUNCO: Well, classes are canceled today.


JUNCO: So the only people I've seen are the few people here in the studio. So I really don't have my finger on the pulse of what's happening today. Yesterday we were all very shocked. I was in a meeting with a few other colleagues when we got the news. And we just stopped meeting and started looking on the Internet on Twitter for more information once the lockdown was announced. And there was this unspoken agreement among the people there that we were no longer, you know, engaging in business - we were, you know, trying to find out what was going on and just in shock, really.

HEADLEE: Shock because there was a fatal shooting or that Purdue had not seemed like the place where that kind of thing would happen?

JUNCO: Well, shocked that there was a fatal shooting again in this country.

HEADLEE: Well, Rey, our best wishes with you and the other staff and faculty and students at Purdue University. I hope the days forward are easier than they were yesterday. Rey Junco is a psychologist and professor of library science at Purdue University. Rey, thank you so much.

JUNCO: Thank you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: We also spoke with Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard University School of Public Health. Robert, thank you.

BLENDON: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.