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Latino Immigrants Across The U.S. Report Similar Levels Of Discrimination

Former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio recently announced his bid for the Arizona Senate seat being vacated by Republican Jeff Flake. To say that Arpaio is a controversial figure is putting it mildly: He was sued by the Department of Justice for violating Latinos’ civil rights and found in contempt of court for illegally detaining unauthorized immigrants, among other things. And Arpaio isn’t the only staunchly anti-immigration politician in Arizona.

The state is also home to SB 1070, a law that requires law-enforcement agents to check the immigration status of anyone they stop who they suspect of being in the country without documentation.1 Arizona’s turn against unauthorized immigration provoked a series of protests and inspired the bilingual song “Todos Somos Arizona” (“We Are All Arizona”).

Given that context, you might expect immigrants to view Arizona as among the places where they’d be most likely to experience discrimination. But they don’t. For the years before 2010, there was surprisingly little variation in immigrants’ perceptions of discrimination across states. And to the extent that states do vary, immigrants in Arizona reported relatively low levels of discrimination.

Even more recently, there is not much evidence that Latinos, both immigrant and native-born, see much difference in levels of discrimination across states. In that respect, immigrants may be similar to their native-born neighbors: They may react more to events on the national stage — say, the fight over the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy — than to what’s happening closer to home.

With a team of political scientists and social psychologists — Jonathan Mummolo, Victoria Esses, Cheryl Kaiser, Monica McDermott and Helen Marrow — I investigated how immigrants’ perceptions of discrimination vary across states and localities in a 2016 article in Politics, Groups and Identities.2 We expected that immigrants’ perceptions of discrimination would vary significantly depending on where those immigrants had settled.

There was good reason for that expectation. In recent decades, immigrants have increasingly settled in states that have not been immigrant destinations for generations — like North Carolina, Arkansas and Alabama — often initially drawn by jobs in meatpacking, construction and other industries. What’s more, immigrants to different parts of the country face very different receptions from state and local governments, especially if they are unauthorized.

Some states and localities have laws like SB 1070, which seek to deport undocumented immigrants where possible or encourage them to leave. Others take the opposite approach, from sanctuary cities that limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities to jurisdictions that provide in-state tuition or identification cards regardless of documentation. Those differences in policy mirror very real differences in native-born attitudes on immigration across communities.

To test whether immigrants themselves report variation in discrimination by location, we looked for surveys that had sizable numbers of first-generation immigrants (meaning people residing in the U.S. who were born elsewhere) and asked about perceptions of discrimination. I focus here on the results from the 2005-06 Latino National Survey.

Next, we calculated how many respondents reported different types of discrimination, such as from the police, at stores or while searching for housing or jobs. For Latino immigrants living in 7 states, the results are evident in the table below.3 The variation in perceived discrimination across states is fairly limited — and the states where immigrants report the highest levels of discrimination are not the places making news for anti-immigrant policies.

Latino immigrants’ reports of discrimination in 2005-06

Share of respondents who perceived discrimination in various interactions

State Police Stores Job Housing
Arizona 9% 12% 10% 5%
California 13 12 16 7
Florida 10 10 10 5
Illinois 12 13 17 4
New Jersey 13 10 19 6
New York 8 8 15 6
Texas 7 9 13 3

Source: Latino National Survey

First off, reports of any one type of discrimination are relatively low, with those in the workplace typically the highest. No more than 8 percent of respondents report experiencing discrimination in housing, and no more than 16 percent report discrimination in stores and restaurants. That said, as other scholars have reported, respondents are more likely to perceive discrimination against their group than against themselves. That is, members of minority groups are more likely to report that their group faces discrimination than that they personally face discrimination.

But it is also striking that the places where reports of discrimination are the highest are mostly more traditional immigrant destinations like California, New Jersey and Illinois rather than places with restrictive policies regarding immigration. In fact, respondents in Arizona tend to report lower levels of perceived discrimination than those most other states.

A single state can be home to quite different communities. Within New York state, it is plausible that immigrants might face very different welcomes in a Long Island suburb like Farmingville than in a heavily immigrant neighborhood in Queens. But when we look at differences across U.S. counties, we find much the same pattern. Put simply, there is surprisingly little systematic variation in perceived discrimination across places. That is true not only for Latino immigrants, but for Asian-American and Muslim immigrants, too. Where first-generation immigrants live has little to do with how much discrimination they are likely to report.4

Of course, those results are based on data from over 10 years ago, and America’s immigration climate has changed dramatically from the days when Republican President George W. Bush was pursuing comprehensive immigration reform. And there is always the prospect that immigrants might not recognize an action as discrimination or feel comfortable reporting it in a survey.

But teaming up with Cheryl Kaiser and Efrén Pérez, I was able to ask similar questions about perceptions of discrimination of a sample of 820 Latinos interviewed in English or Spanish in the spring of 2016. This survey came after SB 1070, and after the emergence of Donald Trump and his repeated attacks on immigrants. It also asked slightly different questions, as it inquired about how frequently respondents perceived discrimination rather than simply asking whether they had ever encountered discrimination.

The sample size here is dramatically smaller, a fact that constrains me to reporting the results for Latinos generally rather than just Latinos who are foreign-born.5 That’s a critical difference. Still, the evidence in the second table does reinforce the analyses above, as it shows relatively minor state-level variation. In fact, another analysis clarifies that across the states with more than 20 survey respondents, only Latinos in Florida are markedly different in their perceptions of discrimination — those in the Sunshine State are less likely to perceive discrimination than Latinos elsewhere.6

What was true of immigrants in the second half of the Bush administration appears to be true of Latinos during Trump’s campaign, too: knowing where people live doesn’t tell you much about the amount of discrimination they are likely to perceive.

Latinos’ assessments of discrimination in 2016

Average scores of respondents who ranked how often they encounter bias in various situations, on a scale of 0 (“never”) to 100 (“frequently”)

State Police Stores Job Housing
Arizona 22 26 21 9
California 16 23 18 13
Florida 10 18 15 10
Illinois 25 25 21 9
New Jersey 23 27 33 16
New York 17 18 14 14
Texas 18 23 18 16

Table limited to states with at least 20 respondents.

Source: 2016 GfK survey of Latinos and Asians

What’s going on here? When an expected relationship fails to pan out, it’s hard to point to a single reason, just as it’s hard to give a single reason for why a dog doesn’t bark. But one possibility is that upon arrival, immigrants might define “discrimination” to mean quite different things.

What’s more, it’s often hard to know whether a given act was in fact discrimination: maybe the apartment really was rented, or the store clerk was rude to everyone. That’s part of what makes legal action against discrimination so difficult. Even when there is extensive evidence of discrimination against a group overall, it is difficult to show that discrimination was at the root of any one decision about who gets a job or apartment.

That might be part of the reason why we also find that immigrants who have been in the U.S. for longer report more discrimination overall, not less (though again, with little variation by location). Even though discrimination is sometimes targeted at immigrants because they are thought to be outsiders, acknowledging discrimination appears to be a byproduct of spending significant time in the U.S. and of thinking about discrimination in the same way as native-born Americans. It’s also possible that perceived discrimination is, like so much else in contemporary politics, more a reaction to national events conveyed through the news media. Immigrants may react in similar ways to hostile policies, whether those policies are in their home state or not.


  1. Some of SB 1070’s other provisions were subsequently overturned by the Supreme Court.

  2. This research was funded by multiple grants from the Russell Sage Foundation.

  3. Although the Latino National Survey produced results for more states than are shown below, I have restricted this table to list results only for states that also appear in the 2016 analysis mentioned later in this story to facilitate comparisons between the two sets of data.

  4. These results come from analysis of data from the 2007 Pew Survey of American Muslims and the 2008 National Asian American Survey.

  5. In our sample, almost exactly half of our respondents were born outside the U.S.

  6. I fitted a linear regression that predicted each respondent’s overall level of perceived discrimination using indicator variables for the seven states with the largest numbers of respondents. Only Florida’s coefficient was statistically significant.

Dan Hopkins is an associate professor of government at the University of Pennsylvania, and his research focuses on American elections and public opinion.