How Pew Charts the Growing Influence of Hispanics in America

  • by Lee Hockstader
  • May 23, 2017
  • Features

As the number of Hispanics has grown in the United States, the Pew Research Center has been documenting their influence on national life.

A generation of U.S.-born Hispanics is entering adulthood, and those youngsters are reshaping the consumption of news, the use of language and technology, and the shape of labor markets. It's a story that's not ending, but evolving. Mark Hugo Lopez

For anyone who cared to look, signs of the staggering growth in the U.S. Hispanic population, fueled mainly by immigration, were plain to see in the 1990s. With increasing certainty as the decade wore on, demographers forecast that Hispanics would overtake blacks as the country’s largest minority group. In the 10 years leading up to the turn of the century, more than half the nation’s overall population growth consisted of immigrants and U.S.-born children with roots in Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Latin America. During the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush and Al Gore aggressively courted Hispanic voters, launching volleys of Spanish-language political ads and making direct appeals, sometimes in Spanish, on the campaign trail. “Es un nuevo día,” Bush assured Spanish speakers in one TV spot. It’s a new day.

As the Hispanic population of the United States leapt to 35 million in 2000 from 22 million in 1990, it struck the leadership of The Pew Charitable Trusts that too little was understood about a transformation that was reshaping the country’s demographic and cultural landscape. “There was obviously a lot of academic research, but it tended to be narrowly focused and slow in gestation. Other research centers tended to have an advocacy tilt,” recalls Donald Kimelman, then director of Pew’s Venture Fund. “We embraced the notion that you could study the Hispanic population without having a point of view other than that this growing population needed to be understood.”

That thinking led to the launch of the Pew Hispanic Center and began a prodigious output of newsmaking reports that have been embraced by all sides in the national debate over immigration as well as studies on Hispanics and demographic change. Founded in 2001, the project is now part of the Washington-based Pew Research Center, a self-described “fact tank” where the work is guided by eschewing advocacy in favor of a steady diet of meaty, relevant research on such topics as science and technology, political and global attitudes, religion and public life, and the state of American journalism. 

Hispanic influence in the United States

A worker carries radicchio to a conveyor belt in Merced, California. Many farm workers in the state's fertile Central Valley are unauthorized, and a common misconception is that the number from Mexico is on the rise. In fact, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Mexico living in the United States has decreased by more than a million since 2007. (© Max Whittaker/The New York Times)

Today it is taken nearly for granted that Hispanics are a major social, cultural, and political force in the United States. A smallish minority through the 1970s and ’80s, Hispanics now account for 1 in 6 Americans; by midcentury, more than a quarter of Americans will have Hispanic roots. For Pew, those burgeoning numbers have provided a rich subject for inquiry—a diverse, complex set of communities whose views, behaviors, and future prospects (political, economic, and otherwise) were in many respects uncharted territory for research. “We had the big advantage of being first to explore this important demographic,” says Roberto Suro, who directed the project from 2001 to 2007 after a journalism career that included positions at The New York Times and The Washington Post. “There was a kind of Paul Revere effect—we were able to be the voice that said, ‘This is happening!’”

Still the demand for thoughtful, fastidious, cogently presented Hispanic research also brought some challenges. Distinguishing the mission of the center’s Hispanic research—dispassionate, often hard-hitting studies—from the work of Hispanic advocacy groups has been key to the Pew Research Center’s credibility. “Advocacy groups are often motivated, understandably, by wanting to put Hispanics in the best light possible. But that’s not our job—we’re here to offer neutral research and simple facts,” says Mark Hugo Lopez, an economist who has been the Pew Research Center’s director of Hispanic research since 2013 after five years as its associate director. Adds Paul Taylor, a former Washington Post journalist who became the research center’s first executive vice president and who also led the Hispanic research from 2007 to 2013, “U.S. politics and information systems are becoming more polarized, and societies are well-served by forces seen as neutral, constructive referees. Without that, it’s harder to construct solutions and identify problems.”

By hewing to that vision of down-the-middle impartiality, while delivering high-quality information, the center provides the basic, agreed-upon facts that allow constructive debate on policy. Its reports are referenced by Democrats, Republicans, and partisans of every stripe. Last year, a pair of prominent Republicans—Representative Dave Brat of Virginia and then-Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama—referred to the center’s research in a Jan. 12 letter urging their GOP colleagues in Congress to enact restrictive immigration policies. And in March, during the Democratic presidential primary season, Bernie Sanders cited the center’s research while campaigning at the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, and Hillary Clinton referenced themes from the research during an interview with an Arizona radio station, saying, “There has not been net migration over our border from Mexico in the last several years.” 

Indeed, the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic data, cited in 1,800 clippings in 2016 alone, are a regular touchstone for articles, editorials, and opinion columns across the ideological spectrum. 

Among advocates for Latino issues, the view of the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic research tends more toward grudging respect, tempered by past battles over data interpretation and presentation. In 2010, for instance, its National Survey of Latinos found that a large majority of Latinos favored allowing unauthorized immigrants to remain in the country, including 53 percent who said they should stay and pay a fine and another 28 percent who said they should face no penalty; just 13 percent of respondents said unauthorized immigrants should be deported. The Pew Research Center’s headline over a chart displaying those findings—“Latinos Are Divided over What to Do about Unauthorized Immigrants”—was questioned by some advocates, who found it misleading. Around the same time, some advocates expressed concern about a report showing that immigrants were gaining jobs faster in the economic recovery following the Great Recession, and another showing that the share of all U.S. births to unauthorized immigrants was 8 percent, an eightfold increase in 30 years. 

The numbers themselves were uncontested, but the prominence the Pew Research Center gave them was seen as throwing fuel on the fire of rising anti-immigrant sentiment in 2010. “We’re activists, so we want it all to be positive,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice and a leading advocate for policy changes that would guarantee labor, civil, and political rights to immigrants. “But generally they do really solid work. They have more resources than anyone else, a bigger name than anyone else, they produce more work than anyone else, and by and large it’s considered very serious and in-depth.”

Hispanic influence in the United States

Teenagers on a cruise ship off the coast of Miami attend la quinceañera, a celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday, taking place on board. (© Claudine Doury/Agence VU/Redux)

The center’s Hispanic research is prolific—roughly one major report every other month in addition to timely shorter analyses published through the center’s FactTank blog. Among the most prominent reports in recent years are the Pew Research Center’s periodic estimates of the number of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. (The most recent figure, from 2014, is 11.1 million, down from a peak of 12.2 million in 2007.) The estimates, the product of painstaking analysis known as the residual method, subtract the estimated legal immigrant population from the U.S. Census Bureau’s total of foreign-born residents. What’s left is subjected to a variety of adjustments, to correct for undercounting and other statistical anomalies, to produce an estimate of the unauthorized immigrant population, which is heavily Hispanic. The residual method was developed in the 1980s by number-crunchers at the U.S. Census Bureau, including Jeffrey Passel, one of the world’s most prominent demographers even before he joined the Pew Research Center in 2005. His methodology is widely regarded as rigorous, and the center’s estimate is accepted by most policymakers and groups involved in immigration issues. 

The project’s data on unauthorized immigrants often captures the most attention. But its studies are so varied, authoritative, and nuanced that, taken as a whole, they are a virtual taxonomy of the nation’s Hispanic communities and concerns. In the project’s early years, the reports, drawing on the synergy of survey and demographic research, focused on what was then the new concentration of Hispanic communities in the Southeast; on the impact of $20 billion in annual remittances sent home by Hispanic immigrants in the U.S.; on the relatively low level of college completion by Hispanic students; and on the fact that at least 40 percent of unauthorized immigrants were visa overstayers, not illegal border-crossers. 

Some of the center’s reports were provocative, intentionally or not, including one, in 2010, headlined, “National Latino Leader? The Job Is Open.” (It found that when asked to name the nation’s most important Latino leader, nearly two-thirds of Hispanic respondents said they didn’t know, and another 10 percent answered, “No one.”)

Other studies include a 2011 report detailing that the number of Hispanic children living in poverty had surpassed that of white children living in poverty. Still another, in 2012, drew especially significant media coverage because it found that decades of migration to the United States from Mexico had slowed substantially, with as many Mexicans entering the U.S. as were leaving; a subsequent report, in 2014, also received front-page attention when it showed that more Mexicans were leaving the U.S. than coming in. 

A 2013 study documented the declining importance of Spanish-language media for second- and third-generation Hispanics in the U.S., who are more likely to get their news and entertainment in English. And in 2015, a kaleidoscopic survey of overall U.S. immigration looked back over a 50-year period in which Hispanics accounted for half the 59 million newcomers since 1965, as well as forward to 2065, when the Pew Research Center projected that the foreign-born percentage of the U.S. population would rise to 18 percent, the highest share since records have been kept. (It’s just under 14 percent today.) A 2016 report demonstrated that millennials, ages 18–35, represented 44 percent of the Hispanic electorate—twice the white electorate’s share—triggering widespread commentary and a focus by political parties and candidates on how to reach those voters in a presidential election year.

As the nation’s Hispanic population has come of age—most of the growth in this decade has been from births, not immigration—so has the Pew Research Center’s institutional focus. “A generation of U.S.-born Hispanics is entering adulthood, and those youngsters are reshaping the consumption of news, the use of language and technology, and the shape of labor markets,” says Lopez, who is planning new surveys and reports delving into those subjects. “It’s a story that’s not ending, but evolving.”