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Americans way off on number of Latinos they think are undocumented, poll finds

Perceptions ranged from a third to almost 4-in-10 Hispanics, while the real share is significantly lower, the survey found.
New American citizens at a naturalization ceremony on the flight deck of the USS Hornet museum in Alameda, Calif., on July 2.
New American citizens at a naturalization ceremony on the flight deck of the USS Hornet museum in Alameda, Calif., on July 2.Ray Chavez / MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images

Americans of all backgrounds incorrectly believe that the number of Latinos in the United States who are undocumented is two to three times larger than it actually is, a poll released Thursday found.

About 13 percent of the 62 million Latinos in the U.S. are undocumented, according to Department of Homeland Security and census information from 2019.

A survey commissioned by several groups found that perceptions of the size of the undocumented Latino population range from 30 percent of Latinos — the number ascribed by Asian Americans — to nearly 1 in 4, the perception of African Americans.

Even Latinos believe that the share of undocumented Hispanics is larger than it is. Latinos put the number at 36 percent.  

Several groups commissioned the survey to gauge perceptions of Latinos, the nation’s second-largest population group and responsible for more than half the nation’s growth in the past decade.

The poll found that Americans of the larger racial and ethnic backgrounds also overestimate the actual share of the U.S. population that is Latino, 18.7 percent, and underestimate the actual share born in the U.S., 67 percent.

“There is a lack of understanding of the Latino community, and therefore there is a big indifference,” said Zandra Zuno Baermann, a senior vice president at UnidosUS, a Latino advocacy group and one of the organizations that commissioned the survey.

Estuardo Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Friends of the American Latino Museum, said the misperceptions have consequences, as seen in the Aug. 3, 2019 mass shooting in El Paso in which the gunman drove nearly 700 miles to shoot and kill Latinos. “Take note of these misconceptions not just as another poll, but that there is great work to be done," he said.

The survey also found that most Americans have favorable views of Latino citizens and immigrants living in the U.S. legally. But Americans, particularly whites, are less fond of people living in the country without legal permission.

The survey found that about half of Asian and Black Americans and 67 percent of Latinos view Latino immigrants living here illegally favorably. Just a third of whites held the same view, the poll showed.

However, about 75 percent of those polled believe Latino immigrants have a lot to offer the country and are an economic boost. 

But many felt Latinos who are in the U.S. illegally “take jobs American workers depend on,” poll results showed.

Asian Americans were more likely to feel that way (55 percent), followed by whites (53 percent) and African Americans (49 percent). Among Latinos, 37 percent held that view.

Surprisingly, although Latinos have in recent years been starting small businesses faster than other groups, less than half of whites, Asian Americans and Latinos see Latinos as entrepreneurial or business minded. Half of Blacks attributed those traits to Latinos.

Zuno Baermann said she is heartened to see that Americans associate many positive values and traits with Latinos. 

According to the poll, large shares of Americans see Latinos as family oriented, religious, believers in the American Dream and optimistic. About half in each population group said Latinos share their values.

Those who see Latinos as government dependent, criminals or other negative traits were smaller — about 40 percent or less.

Ana Valdez, executive vice president of the Latino Donor Collaborative, said the survey results show a notable shift from similar surveys dome in 2012, from Americans seeing Latinos as takers nine years ago to now mostly seeing them as contributors.

The survey of 2,200 people was conducted by BSP Research from Aug. 25-Sept. 2 and has a margin of error for the full sample of plus or minus 2.1 percentage points. 

The groups that commissioned the survey are Latino Corporate Directors Association; The Raben Group; UnidosUS; Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino; and the Latino Donor Collaborative.

The margin of error for each population group ranged from plus or minus 3.5 percent for whites to plus or minus 6 percent for Blacks.

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