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Hispanics Place Higher Emphasis On Education, Poll Reports

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MIAMI — Hispanics are eager to blend into American society while still maintaining their cultural identity, a paradox that reflects the complex beliefs of the nation's fastest-growing minority. Yet there are limits to assimilation – most don't expect the United States to elect a Latino president in the next 20 years.

An Associated Press-Univision poll of more than 1,500 Latinos uncovered several distinct trends. Hispanics worry more than most Americans about losing jobs and paying bills. They place a high importance on education and expect their children to go to college.

The poll, also sponsored by The Nielsen Company and Stanford University, showed that Hispanics are torn between hopes for tomorrow and daily doses of financial stress.

"The situation is bad now, but I have faith that this is going to change," says Yadilka Aramboles, a 32-year-old Miamian from the Dominican Republic.

She eyes her three young children playing on the sidewalk and sees college in their future – even though her husband's modest accountant's income barely covers the family's most basic expenses. "For me and my children, I aspire to something more," Aramboles says.

America's 47 million Hispanics face acute economic and political pressures.

The recession that erased millions of jobs has taken an especially heavy toll on Latinos, whose average income is lower than many other groups. And the Hispanic community has been jolted by election-season debate over the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, a debate that has increased in intensity following Arizona's enactment of a law that requires police, while enforcing other laws, to question a person's immigration status if officers have a reasonable suspicion he or she is in the country illegally.

About three-quarters of the nation's illegal immigrants are Hispanic, according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

Just over half in the survey, 54 percent, say it is important that they change to assimilate into society, yet about two-thirds, 66 percent, say Latinos should maintain their distinct culture.

Gary Segura, a political scientist from Stanford who helped conduct the study, said those two views are not necessarily at odds. He said other, better established ethnic groups cling to their traditions, adding, "Identity is multidimensional, and people can see themselves as Hispanic and as Americans."

"It's important to survive in whatever land we're in," said Aniela Sanchez, 30, a freelance editor in Passaic, N.J., and child of a Puerto Rican mother and Dominican father. "But every culture has its beautiful mannerisms, songs, food, and you have to take pride in who you are."

Within the Hispanic community, variety abounds. Forty-six percent were born in the U.S. and 32 percent in Mexico, with the rest scattered among Caribbean islands and Central and South America. Six in 10 are Catholic, and about one in seven consider themselves Protestant evangelicals. Fewer than one in five immigrants say they arrived in the past 10 years, while nearly a quarter have been here at least three decades.

The survey reveals a cautious optimism that brighter opportunities lie ahead – and a conviction that the way to get there is better education.

Just over half expect it will be easier for their children than it's been for them to find good jobs and buy houses. More than eight in 10 say the most important goal for girls and boys graduating high school is to continue their education, with most saying the aim should be a four-year college. Ninety-four percent say they expect their children to actually go to college – more than double the number who say their own parents expected them to do so.

"There's many ways they can succeed here," Ana Mendoza, 33, of Mission, Texas, said of her four children. To achieve that, she says, "it's an obligation to finish school."

Yet the poll highlights a double-barreled problem: As a group, Hispanics have been hit disproportionately hard by the economic slump and are less educated than others.

Forty-five percent say they or a family member have lost a job since last September, with similar numbers or more expressing deep worries about becoming unemployed, paying bills and saving for college. By both measures, that is worse than the downturn's impact on the overall population, according to recent AP-GfK polls.

Signaling concern for the future, 36 percent of Hispanics expect it to be harder for their children to raise a family than it's been for them.

"It's just a struggle. We're cutting back, living with less, adopting to circumstances in a way we really didn't have to in the '80s and '90s," said Amber Thomson, 34, who is half-Hispanic and lives in Menifee, Calif.

Despite their esteem for school, 37 percent of Hispanics are not high school graduates, compared with 14 percent of the overall population, Census Bureau data show. Twelve percent of Hispanics but 27 percent overall have college degrees or more.

Among Hispanics, there are significant differences between those born here and immigrants, who tend to have rosier views of their new country. Similar schisms are evident between citizens and non-citizens, and between those who mostly speak English or Spanish with their families.

Those from abroad are likelier than U.S.-born Latinos to expect their children to attend college and to have better lifestyles than they do. Yet reflecting their lesser integration into American society, 76 percent of immigrants say their well-being depends on other Hispanics succeeding – about double the number of American-born Latinos who say so. Those from abroad are likelier to express financial worries, to say it's important to blend into society, and to say at least half their friends are other Hispanics.

The poll detected a new wariness about the national mood in an election year in which immigration has become a hot issue.

Until April 23, when Arizona enacted a law requiring local police officers to check the documentation of people they suspect might be illegal immigrants, 39 percent of English-speaking Hispanics said it is important to blend into society. Of those interviewed after April 23, some 54 percent said so. The increase is telling because English-speaking Latinos tend to be more involved in American politics than predominantly Spanish speakers.

In a different measure of Hispanics' perceptions of their standing, 29 percent expect a Latino president to be elected in the next 20 years – half the number who think a woman will go to the White House.

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 The Nielsen Company, 1,521 Hispanics were interviewed in English and Spanish, mostly by mail but also by telephone and the Internet. The margin of sampling error was 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.

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Alan Fram reported from Washington. Associated Press Polling Director Trevor Tompson and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.

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