Promoting involvement from Spanish-speaking parents can work for everyone. (AP Images )

Poll: 1 out of 3 Americans inaccurately think most Hispanics are undocumented

For  many non-Latino Americans, the words “Latino” and “illegal immigrant” are one and the same.  A new poll released by by the National Hispanic Media Coalition and Latino Decisions finds over 30 percent of non-Hispanics believe a majority (over half) of Hispanics are undocumented.  However, the actual figure of undocumented Hispanics in the U.S. is around 18 percent, and only 37 percent of U.S. Hispanics are actually immigrants, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.  (Pew Hispanic was not involved in the poll).

These are some of  the findings of the poll, which focuses on how media portrayals impact public opinion of Latinos and immigrants.

“There is widespread exposure to negative stereotypes of Latinos in the media, and exposure to these images and stereotypes does have a causal effect on people’s perceptions,” explains political scientist Matt Barreto,  principal at Latino Decisions.

Non-Latinos hold some positive views of Hispanics — over 75 percent of those polled think Latinos are family-oriented (90 percent), hard-working (81 percent), religious (81 percent) and honest (76 percent). However, 1 out of 2 non-Latinos think “welfare recipient” describes Latinos very or somewhat well (51 percent), as well as “less educated” (50 percent),  and “refuse to learn English” (44 percent).

“The media is doing a disservice with coverage that is misleading the public about Latinos who live in the U.S.,” said National Hispanic Media Coalition president and CEO Alex Nogales. “It is producing attitudes among non-Latinos that contribute to hate speech and hate crimes. We must demand that the media do a better job with its coverage,” Nogales added in a press conference in Washington D.C. today.

To see if there was a link between media portrayals and views of Hispanics, Latino Decisions conducted an online interactive experiment with over 3,000 non-Latino participants. They were randomly shown either negative or positive one-minute clips of Hispanics. According to the report, exposure to just one negative clip predicted higher Latino stereotyping in terms of criminal activity, Latino families being too large, or impressions that Hispanics are “illegal immigrants.”  For example, almost half — 49 percent —  of non-Latinos who heard a negative radio clip thought Hispanics take jobs away from Americans, whereas 33 percent of those who heard a positive radio story thought the same.

“Whether it was an entertainment, news, radio or print clip, there was a causal effect after exposure to these images,” says Barreto.   After seeing a positive Latino TV news clip, 68 percent of respondents thought Hispanics were “honest,” (compared to 53 percent who saw a negative television news spot) and 61 percent thought Hispanics were “neighborly and welcoming”  (compared to 48 percent who saw a negative news clip).

Yet the association between “Hispanic” and “illegal immigrant” is pretty strong, despite positive clips. Even after watching Latino actor Jimmy Smits play a U.S. president on “West Wing,” 54 percent of respondents still thought “illegal immigrants” applied to Latinos, and print and television news consumers were not far behind (48 and 47 percent).

The study also found less than half (47 percent) of non-Latinos describe Hispanics as patriotic, even after watching positive TV news images of Latinos.

What about the relationship between what Americans choose to watch or read and their views on Latinos? The study found strong correlations. For example, 41 percent of conservative radio talk show listeners think Latinos take jobs away from other Americans, over twice the rate of National Public Radio listeners (19 percent held this opinion). Illinois Democratic congressman Luis Gutiérrez stated he sees the consequences of negative talk radio in his office on public policy issues such as immigration. “We get calls in my office from angry and outraged talk radio listeners several times a week filled with misconceptions and negative stereotypes,” said Gutiérrez in a statement. “The reality is that when you strip away the anger, underneath there is a lot of consensus among Democrats, Republicans, and independents on the immigration issue and how to get things back on a legal footing,” he added.

Another part of the poll interviewed 900 non-Latino respondents on their views of Hispanics as well as media portrayals of Hispanics.  Seventy one percent of those polled say they usually see Latinos portrayed as criminals or gang members, for example, whereas only 5 percent say they see Latinos in television or film roles as doctors, nurses, judges or lawyers.

NHMC plans to share the results of this study with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

One positive trend when it comes to Americans’ perceptions of Hispanics is demographics. While only 12 percent of 40-to-69-year-olds report strong interactions with Hispanics, 55 percent of 18-39-year-olds have markedly strong ties to Latinos, which is associated with more positive perceptions of Hispanic-Americans.


  1. Robert Ramirez says:

    My ancestors came to America in the 1600 & 1700’s from Spain and were given a spanish land grant to settle in the South Texas area when it was under the contraco of Spain. Does this make me an imigrant?

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