ANDRES OPPENHEIMER American dream fuels Hispanic immigration

If you think that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, concerns about the U.S. economy or unemployment will slow down the rising tide of Latin American migration to the United States, you are probably wrong. In fact, the opposite may be true.
The reason? Very simple: Polls show that, despite all of their troubles, Hispanic immigrants in the United States seem to be a pretty happy crowd.
And if that's true, you can safely assume that they will continue telling their relatives and friends back home that things are not as bad in the United States as they may read in their countries' press.
Poll shows optimism
A new nationwide poll by Zogby International conducted for The Miami Herald shows that a surprising 80 percent of U.S. Hispanics agree that "it is possible for you and your family to achieve the American Dream." Only 17 percent responded that the American Dream "does not exist."
The poll leaves little doubt about the upbeat mood among U.S. Hispanics: 70 percent say their situation is better than that of their parents, while only 13 percent say it is worse. And 58 percent say they expect their children's finances to be better than their own, while 19 percent believe they will be worse, according to the poll.
Interestingly, the percentage of Hispanics who are optimistic about the future is much higher than that of any other low-income, nonimmigrant group, such as African Americans or single mothers, says pollster John Zogby, head of Zogby International.
"It's fascinating," Zogby says, referring to the assumption by many that all low-income groups are by their very nature pessimistic about the future. "The reality is that immigrants and new migrants bring with them the new dream and spirit of hope."
This will have an impact on migration, no matter how hard Washington tries to close down U.S. borders. "It goes back to what they used to call the America letters in the 18th and 19th centuries," Zogby says. "People were writing about America in glowing terms to their relatives back home, and the letters were always read aloud in their villages. Now, it's going on via e-mail."
Political preferences
The nationwide poll of 1,003 likely Hispanic voters, with a 3.2 percentage point margin of error and conducted before last week's Democratic National Convention, showed that 60 percent support Democratic candidate John Kerry, while 32 percent support President Bush.
It also showed that U.S. Hispanics are somewhat to the left of the general U.S. population. Thirty-five percent of Hispanics described themselves as "progressive" or "liberal," while 32 percent described themselves as "moderate" and 29 percent as "conservative" or "very conservative."
By comparison, about 32 percent of Americans identify themselves to the left in the political spectrum, while 41 percent see themselves as "conservative" or "very conservative."
But what I found most striking about the poll is the surprising optimism among U.S. Hispanics, despite their low wages, larger-than-average school dropout rates and, in many big cities, higher unemployment rates than the general population.
Immigration increases
Already, despite post-Sept. 11 security measures that made it more difficult for new migrants to get driver's licenses or Social Security numbers, the number of arrivals from Latin America has soared.
According to the latest U.S. Census figures, the number of U.S. Hispanics -- both new arrivals and those born in the United States -- rose by 13 percent over the past three years, to 39.9 million. By comparison, the overall U.S. population grew by 3 percent over that period.
And the upward trend is likely to continue.
That's why the periodic calls by both Republican and Democratic politicians to "strengthen our border controls" will be a waste of time and money unless Washington tackles the core issue: the huge income gap between Americans and Latin Americans.
As long as the per capita income in the United States is $36,000 while that of Mexico is $9,000 and Peru's is $5,000, and as long as U.S. Hispanics continue believing in the American Dream, the exodus will continue. The only solution will be helping speed up Latin America's development.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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