REPORTS & SURVEYS | SEPTEMBER 9TH, 2009 | Scott Bittle and Jonathan Rochkind, with Amber Ott and Paul Gasbarra
Congress and the Bush administration tried to reform immigration policy in 2006, and failed. A year later, they tried again, with no more success. Now President Barack Obama and congressional leaders say they'll try once more. Political leaders are speaking of it in just those terms: one last chance, one last try.
"We've got one more chance to do this," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., after a White House meeting in June. "If we fail this time around, no politician is going to take this up in a generation."
Perhaps that's hyperbole, but whether it is or not, the stakes remain high. It’s a cliché to say that America is a nation of immigrants, but like most clichés, this one began as a statement of simple truth. Another truth is that if we're going to overhaul immigration policy, it only makes sense to listen to the people who will be most affected by it: immigrants. To craft a just and practical policy, we need to see America through the immigrants' eyes. That’s true whether you favor an open door or a higher fence. You can’t hope to implement sound strategies unless you understand what brings people to the United States and what they think about the nation once they get here.
That’s what Public Agenda hopes to accomplish with A Place to Call Home: What Immigrants Say Now About Life in America, the follow-up to our pioneering 2002 survey of immigrants, Now That I'm Here. In A Place to Call Home, we've extended our sampling to gain a more detailed view of Hispanics and Muslims. Because we surveyed both cell phone owners and landline households, we were able to capture the perspectives of undocumented immigrants as well. Just as importantly, we can now see trend data on how immigrants view a tumultuous period in history.
The past seven years have seen ferocious debate over immigration, even as legislation has remained stalled. The United States admits more than 1 million immigrants a year, and the Census Bureau reports 12 percent of the population is foreign-born at 34.2 million. In addition, there are an estimated 12 million illegal or undocumented immigrants in the country. 
In 2002, the immigration debate was haunted by the ghosts of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the question of how to keep the country secure from further acts of terrorism. Those concerns haven’t gone away, of course, but the economic and cultural tensions that have always shaped immigration policy have reasserted themselves. While attempts to change immigration laws have failed, they've also kept the issue at the forefront of public debate.
Employers who hire illegal immigrants are under increased pressure from the federal government to comply with existing laws, and a number of state and local governments have enacted their own laws to restrict services to immigrants without documents. All this has led to a fever-pitch debate over how the country should deal with immigration.
One thing that is clear from our research, and probably comforting to both sides of the immigration debate: The overwhelming majority of immigrants say they’re happy in the United States, and would do it all over again if they could. Immigrants “buy in” to American society, for themselves and their children. They rate the United States as an improvement over their birthplace in almost all dimensions, and most say they expect their children to remain in this country. This sense of having made the right decision cuts across all groups, regardless of income, immigration status or ethnic group.
Despite much rhetoric and a number of well-publicized incidents, many immigrants report that discrimination and government harassment aren't a major part of their daily lives. Although majorities say discrimination does exist in the United States—against both immigrants in general and people from their birth country—most don’t report having personally encountered much discrimination. Thirty-eight percent of immigrants say they haven’t faced discrimination at all. Government immigration officials get higher ratings now than they did in our 2002 survey.
Still, roughly one-quarter of immigrants report running into at least some discrimination personally, and about 1 in 10 immigrants report having done so “a great deal.” One cannot discount the power these encounters have, and the extent to which they resonate, not only for the immigrants themselves but also for their communities. When only a few individuals report bad experiences but solid majorities are convinced that discrimination exists, it’s a fair assumption that those few incidents can have lasting echoes.
It’s also true that fewer immigrants say they’re “extremely happy” in the United States than nine years ago, and the number who say they’d do it all over again has fallen. However, this doesn’t seem to be driven by discrimination or by problems adjusting to a new country. Most immigrants, in fact, say they fit in to American life quickly, even as their ties to their birth country seem to have grown stronger. More immigrants say they phone home and send money regularly compared to 2002, and half of the immigrants we surveyed say they mostly spend time with others from their birth country, a significant increase from seven years ago. This seeming contradiction—quickly becoming comfortable in the United States even as ties to their birth country grow stronger—suggests that other immigrants, and the broader immigrant community, play a strong role in helping immigrants adjust.
Immigrants say the biggest problem they face right now is also the biggest problem facing the rest of the country: the economy. We’re seeing this reflected in multiple dimensions. Not only do more than 6 in 10 immigrants say the economy is the most important problem for the country but financial concerns seem to be playing a much greater role in their attitudes. Almost all still say that the United States is a better place than their birth country for earning a living, but more also cite finding a job and securing government assistance as major reasons to pursue citizenship. No wonder, then, that their overall happiness has diminished.
So as the debate renews on immigration reform, what do immigrants want? What path do they believe the nation should take?
For immigrants, there are several overarching themes for reform. A solid majority says that illegal immigrants become productive citizens—almost exactly the opposite of the view held by the general public. Perhaps not surprisingly, immigrants support new measures to bring illegal or undocumented immigrants more firmly into the mainstream. An overwhelming 84 percent support a “guest worker” program, while more than 7 in 10 back a “path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record and have shown a commitment to the United States, though support for this latter varies according to age and ethnic group. As a whole, however, immigrants back some method of bringing illegal immigrants into society.
This report was based on six focus groups and a national telephone survey of 1,138 foreign-born adults. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent, although the margin is higher when comparing subgroups. There are plenty of methodological hurdles intrinsic to interviewing this population. As in our prior study, we limited our definition of immigrants to people born outside the United States and, in order to capture their recollections of coming to America, we excluded anyone who emigrated under 5 years of age. And as before, we conducted the telephone survey in English and Spanish.
This time, we wanted to take a closer look at particular ethnic groups that are often overlooked because of their relatively small size in the United States, including Middle Easterners, South and East Asians, as well as Central and South Americans. In order to do so, we supplemented our random digital dialed (RDD) sample with a list of phone numbers of those likely to identify with one of these ethnicities. The list was provided by Ethnic Technologies, ,a leading provider of multicultural lists. Within each household, an adult member was chosen randomly and screened to ensure that they match our immigrant criteria.
Since we conducted our last survey on immigrants in 2002, the number of people in the United States who use a cell phone has increased significantly, and this number is even greater for immigrant populations. According to both the 2009 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) and the General Social Survey (GSS), 22 percent of foreign-born residents of the U.S. do not own a landline telephone, but do own a cell phone.
Thus we included a dual-frame, cell phone sample alongside our landline sample to capture immigrants who do not have access to a landline. In addition, our stratified random dialing design ensured that no matter where an immigrant lived in the United States, whether in a location that has a high density of immigrants or one where immigrants are fewer or farther between, all immigrants had a chance to be included in our survey.
One final difference from our last immigrant study: In this survey, we chose to ask respondents about their legal status in the United States. Before weighting, eight percent of our sample say that they are undocumented, and 57 percent say that they are United States citizens. Of those who say they are not citizens, 20 percent say they are in the process of becoming a citizen and 76 percent are not in the process. But 64 percent of the noncitizens say they plan to seek citizenship in the future.
 “Guest Worker Program Poses Obstacle for Obama on Immigration Push,” June 25, 2009, The New York Times, http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/guest-worker-program-poses-obstacle-for-obama-on-immigration-push
 "Yearbook of Immigration Statistics 2008," Department of Homeland Security, http://www.dhs.gov/ximgtn/statistics/publications/yearbook.shtm