WASHINGTON, DC - Daily life for Marlen Lopez sounds anything but easy: The 33-year-old undocumented worker cleans offices to pay her bills and hasn't seen her 8-year-old son since she left El Salvador three years ago. Yet Lopez is happy with her job, hopeful about the future and confident her son will one day graduate from college in the United States.
For Lopez, as for many other Hispanic immigrants, optimism about life in the U.S. appears to be partly a product of what they see in the rearview mirror.
An Associated Press-Univision poll of more than 1,500 Latinos finds that Hispanic immigrants, many of whom faced huge problems in their homelands, have more idealized views of the U.S. than do Hispanics who were born in America.
It's an oft-told story in U.S. history, one of immigrants drawn to the land of opportunity and happy with the contrast to their old life. But also one of ethnic groups that settle in only to confront social and economic hurdles that persist from one generation to the next.
For Lopez, life in the U.S. so far has met the expectations she's built up since she was a young girl in El Salvador. In one week of cleaning offices, she earns double or triple what she made in a month as a grocery store cashier back home. And she's working much shorter days now, as she prepares to bring her son and father to the U.S.
"One hopes for the best and sometimes you don't get it, but I'm good where I am," Lopez, who lives in Columbia, Md., tells a reporter in Spanish.
The poll, also sponsored by the Nielsen Co. and Stanford University, turned up stark differences between the hopes of immigrant parents and U.S.-born Hispanics for their children: 77 percent of foreign-born Hispanic parents believe it will be easier for their children to find a good job, compared with 31 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics. Likewise, far more Hispanic immigrants believe it will be easier for their children to buy a house and for their children to raise a family than do Hispanics born in the U.S.
And because the nation's 47 million Hispanics are the country's fastest growing minority, questions such as where they will work, whether their kids go to college, whom they will vote for and more have huge importance to the country as a whole.
It turns out that those born abroad hold higher hopes even though they worry more than U.S.-born Hispanics about jobs, bills, college savings and other expenses, the poll finds.
Gary Segura, a political scientist from Stanford who helped conduct the poll, attributes the differences in expectations to "adverse socialization." Recent immigrants, he said, "might find their life in the U.S. to be superior to the life that they left." But as time goes by and things don't work out as well as expected, he said, the outlook begins to dim.
The country's economic downturn has taken an especially harsh toll on Hispanics, according to the poll, with 6 in 10 saying it's hard for them to get ahead financially and nearly half or more expressing intense worry over losing their jobs, paying bills or saving for college.
And those financial pressures act as a brake on Latinos who place huge importance on the value of a college education. A whopping 94 percent of Latinos in the poll expect their own children to go to college. Yet Census figures show that only 13 percent of Hispanics have a bachelor's degree or higher.
The case of Alfredo
Alfredo Coronel, a 22-year-old college student who emigrated illegally from Mexico when he was 8, seems to give voice to both the optimism and frustrations.
Coronel, an architecture student at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, Calif., predicts it will be easier for his children to attend college than it's been for him.
"I'm getting all this experience about the system, so they will benefit," he says.
But as an undocumented immigrant, Coronel can't get federal aid or loans, and he'll have trouble finding a good job after school without proper work papers.
"I worry all the time about what will happen when I get out of college," he says. "Every single day."
The poll finds that many Hispanics are engaged in a cultural balancing act, eager to fit in while also striving to preserve their own ethnic identities. Foreign-born Hispanics are more likely to think it's important to change and blend into society than are U.S.-born Hispanics.
Segura said that may be a matter of necessity: Immigrants, especially those who can't speak English, are "more likely to pay a price" if they can't move freely through society. Those who are born here, on the other hand, tend to place more importance on maintaining their distinct cultures.
"It is like I have a foot in both worlds," says 21-year-old Sindy Avila, an undocumented immigrant brought here by her parents as a 1-year-old.
"I make my identity as I go," says Avila, a student at Portland State University.
The poll makes clear the political pressures that Hispanics are feeling as the public debates Arizona's harsh new immigration law and questions are raisedabout the guarantee of citizenship given to babies who are born in the United States to illegal immigrants.
Before the Arizona law passed on April 23, 40 percent of English-dominant poll respondents thought it was important for Hispanics to blend into society. After the law passed, that percentage rose to 55 percent.
The AP-Univision Poll was conducted from March 11 to June 3 by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, using a sample of Hispanic households provided by Nielsen. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Stanford University's participation in the study was made possible by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.