Our Foreign Born 10 Percent: Giving (Mostly) Good Reviews To the Lives They Lead in America

One of the ironies of rising anti-Americanism abroad is that the U.S. has seldom been less “American,” in the simplest sense of that term. A sustained wave of immigration has given us a population in which 10 percent of U.S. residents were born in other nations—up from 5 percent as recently as 1970. Think of it this way: Thirty years ago, the country’s native-born residents outnumbered its foreign-born residents by a ratio of 19 to 1. Now, the ratio is 9 to 1.

How do these immigrants feel about their adopted country? It’s risky to generalize about a cohort that numbers close to 30 million, but a survey of immigrants by Public Agenda reveals some tendencies. At the most basic level, 55 percent said they’re “extremely happy” with life in the U.S., and 41 percent are “somewhat happy” with it. Two percent are “generally disappointed.” Still, 15 percent said they’re likely to move back to their native country someday, and 3 percent expect to move to some other country. That’s consistent with another of the findings: If they had it all to do over again, 80 percent of respondents said they’d move to the U.S., 11 percent would stay in their native land and 4 percent would emigrate to a different country.

It’s partly a matter of self-definition. Given three statements and asked to say which best describes them, nearly equal numbers said “I act like an American outside, but at home I keep my own culture or traditions” (41 percent) or “I have become an American” (42 percent); 14 percent said “I live here, but I don’t consider myself an American.” The findings suggest that immigrants don’t feel under duress to fully assimilate: 81 percent endorsed the statement, “It’s easy for me to hold on to my culture and traditions in the U.S.” Nor is discrimination as much a factor in their lives as one might suppose. Asked how much discrimination they’ve experienced because they’re immigrants, 41 percent said “none at all” and 26 percent said “only a little”; 23 percent said “some” and 7 percent said “a great deal.” Despite fears that 9/11 would yield a surge in nativist sentiment, just 9 percent said anyone was “offensive or rude” to them in its aftermath because they appear to be immigrants. Nearly as many (7 percent) said people have been “especially kind or sympathetic to them” for the same reason.

Although 39 percent of respondents mostly speak their native language at home, a majority of them insist on the importance of learning English. Sixty-five percent said “the U.S. should expect all immigrants who don’t speak English to learn it,” vs. 31 percent saying “this should be left up to each individual to decide for themselves.” Likewise, 63 percent said “all public school classes should be taught in English,” while 32 percent said immigrants’ kids “should be able to take some courses in their native language.”