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Language, work key to successful integration into American society, study showscomment (0)

May 8, 2014

It’s the middle of another election year. And while midterms historically draw a smaller crowd of voters, they bring to the forefront of political conversation a variety of issues intended to energize voter bases and solidify party candidates. Predictably one of those issues is once again immigration.

With roughly 53 million Latinos living in America, they are now the nation’s largest ethnic or race minority, making them an important voting demographic for any candidate. However, Hispanic Americans on the whole show up to vote at midterms less than other groups. Some candidates are hoping to change that by focusing on an issue that hits close to home.

Immigration, of course, is a hot-button topic and parties promote sharply divided views on the right approach. But all sides share a common concern when it comes to what happens after immigration. What does successful integration into American society look like? Barna Group partnered with the American Bible Society, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and OneHope for a study called Barna: Hispanics. Not all Americans — of Hispanic origin or otherwise — agree on the specifics of successful integration, but they can agree on the desire to see immigrants thrive in their new home. For most, success includes two key areas: language and work.

But first, a look at some immigration demographics.

Demographics: Heritage, Birthplace and Residency

While much immigration policy is focused on those who have very recently immigrated, most people of Hispanic origin living in the United States have been here for a while. On average, Hispanic Americans have lived in the U.S. for 25 years. Most of them — about 7 in 10 — are legal residents or citizens of the U.S.

More than half of all U.S. Hispanics did not immigrate but were born in the U.S. Of those who did immigrate, about 30 percent were born in Mexico. All other Latin and South American countries, including Puerto Rico, Cuba, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and other countries, have contributed less than 5 percent each to U.S. Hispanic immigrants.

Similarly the heritage of a majority of Hispanic Americans is Mexican (64 percent). One in 10 Hispanic Americans is of Puerto Rican descent and 1 in 20 is Cuban. Other family heritages include Spanish (3 percent), Dominican (2 percent) and Salvadoran (2 percent). Other groups contribute less than 1 percent to the Hispanic American population.

Language Fluency

Language barriers are a challenge most immigrants have to navigate. While there are many Spanish-speaking services and establishments in the U.S., learning to speak English is still a critical component of long-term success for Hispanic American immigrants. Participants in the survey had the option to take it in English or Spanish. Most chose English — more than double the number who chose Spanish. Of those who chose to take the survey in English, nearly half (48 percent) said they also are very fluent in Spanish, and an additional 3 in 10 (28 percent) said they speak Spanish “pretty well.” Only 9 percent said they cannot speak Spanish at all and about 1 in 6 (16 percent) said they only speak Spanish “a little.”

Among those who opted into the Spanish survey, the numbers tell a different story. This is a group that is much less bilingual. Only 1 in 5 respondents said they speak English “very well.” An additional 3 in 10 (30 percent) can speak English “pretty well.” Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) said they speak English “just a little.” Only 3 percent said they can’t speak English at all.

Church is one institution that offers Latinos an opportunity to participate in their first language; many faith communities host Spanish-speaking worship services. Perhaps surprisingly, however, more Hispanic Americans say they would prefer to attend an English-only service (32 percent) than a Spanish-only service (25 percent). Similarly more Hispanic Americans currently attend an English-only service (32 percent) than a Spanish-only service (18 percent).

But bilingual services are what many Hispanic Americans are looking for. More than two-fifths (43 percent) of respondents expressed a desire to attend a bilingual service, while half (50 percent) said they attend a bilingual service now.

The Hispanic Work Ethic

Finding meaningful and fairly compensated work in their new home country is a significant aspect of successful integration for immigrants. Hispanic Americans are proud of their work ethic and see it as a key facet of their identity. In fact, 1 in 4 (24 percent) named it as the second-greatest contribution of the Hispanic community to American society; only “commitment to family” received more votes (36 percent). One in 5 Hispanic Americans (20 percent) said “cultural heritage” is the most important contribution, while 7 percent said “enjoyment of life,” 6 percent said “commitment to faith” and 8 percent chose none of the options.

As a rule, Hispanics see social value in their work. A strong majority — more than two-thirds (69 percent) — agree their work helps make the world a better place, while less than 1 in 5 disagree (16 percent). This number is slightly higher (72 percent) among Catholics and significantly lower (58 percent) among those who claim no faith or a faith other than Christianity. Similarly when asked if they find personal meaning and fulfillment in the work they do, Catholics (89 percent) and Protestants (86 percent) were slightly more likely than average (85 percent) to agree and much more likely than Hispanic Americans of no faith or faiths other than Christianity (64 percent).

However, even while Christian Hispanic Americans are more likely to find personal meaning and fulfillment in their work and to believe it’s creating a better world, they don’t necessarily see a connection between their work and their faith. In fact, 8 in 10 Catholics (79 percent) and half of Protestants (50 percent) say their faith and their work are two separate parts of their life, with those of no/other faith falling between the two Christian segments (63 percent).

What the Research Means

Clint Jenkin, vice president of research at Barna Group, said, “There are a lot of groups — political, religious, commercial — who are working hard to connect with a Hispanic audience. But reaching Latinos effectively requires an understanding of diversity among Hispanic Americans. It’s tempting to think of ‘Hispanic’ as a single culture, when really it’s convenient shorthand for a complex group of cultures. When we dig into the data, we find diverse attitudes and behaviors that reflect this complexity. Factors such as language of preference, nation of origin (including the U.S.) and level of acculturation all influence how Hispanics engage with broader American culture. Anyone who wants to connect with Hispanic Americans, including faith leaders, needs to do their homework to appreciate these engagement factors.

“On the religious front, we see similar, hard-to-pigeonhole complexity,” he added. “The charismatic movement has, in many ways, redefined both Catholic and Protestant Hispanics, creating a third category that blurs the lines of this historic divide. And it has even more personal implications: a person’s self-identification as charismatic is strongly correlated with how deeply she integrates faith with other aspects of her life.

“Hispanic Americans rightly take pride in their strong work ethic and in the contribution their work makes to the country as a whole. In some ways, this ethic of hard work is more integrated with Hispanic identity than is religious persuasion, and it presents an opportunity to pastors and other faith leaders invested in discipleship among Latinos. Helping Hispanic Christians make the connection between their faith and their vocation — their calling — is a promising path toward sustainable faith formation.”


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