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There's An Immigration Gap In How Latinos Perceive Discrimination

Valery Pozo still gets angry thinking about it. It was about a decade ago, and the immigrant communities in her hometown, Salt Lake City, were on edge because of recent immigration enforcement raids in the area. Pozo's mother, an immigrant from Peru, was on the sidelines at her son's soccer game when another parent asked whether she was "illegal."

"To me, that was clearly a racist question and a racist assumption," Pozo recalled.

But her mother saw it as a harmless comment, despite Pozo's best efforts to convince her that it was something bigger.

"I said, 'Here we are just like any other family, playing soccer and doing things with our community, and we're constantly "otherized",' " Pozo said. "And I remember pointing that out — that no matter what we do, we'll always be seen as other or different."

Her mother attributed the soccer parent's comment to the fact that immigration had been in the news. And the parents on the soccer team were so nice, it couldn't have been more than an innocent question.

Pozo says it has always been like this in her family. She notices the subtle ways that the white people in her community, nice as they may be, remind her family that it doesn't truly belong. Her mom thinks she is making a big deal about nothing.

That is why her mother didn't want to be interviewed for this story. She has never been subjected to discrimination, she said, so what was there to say?

A surveyconducted by NPR, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that Latinos born in the U.S. — those like Pozo — were nearly twice as likely as immigrant Latinos — those like her mother — to say that someone had used a racial slur against them or had made negative assumptions or comments toward them because of their race or ethnicity.

Emilio Parrado, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says this is not an unusual finding. It tracks with much of what is already understood about how a Latina's or a Latino's immigration status affects how she or he perceives racism and discrimination.

He says there are many possible reasons for this. One is that U.S.-born Latinos may in fact experience more discrimination. Because they are more likely than immigrants to be educated and ascending the economic and social ladder, this often puts them into contact — and competition — with white Americans for degrees, jobs and political power.

"Discrimination is a strategy of the dominant group to protect itself, to protect the benefits that they have," Parrado said. "So discrimination is something that emerges not when people are culturally different, but that emerges when people compete."

Parrado says there is another factor to explain why immigrant Latinos are much less likely to report having been subjected to discrimination than U.S.-born Latinos.

They come from countries with different social and racial contexts, so when they first arrive, many "don't understand race relations in the U.S."

"For immigrants, there is a process of learning that you are being discriminated against," he said.

He says many immigrants will begin to notice ways in which they're treated differently or poorly but not immediately attribute that treatment to race or ethnicity or the way they look.

"Immigrants tend to think that it's their own fault," Parrado said. "That it's because they don't know the rules, or they don't know English."

But their U.S.-born children often know that that is not always the case, because they do know the rules, they do speak English and yet they often have the same or similar experiences as their parents.

"The children of immigrants, they know that it comes from ethnicity, and not from the behavior of immigrants," Parrado said.

Karina Ramirez understands this. She grew up in the U.S. Her mother, Fabiola Hidalgo, grew up in Ecuador. They currently live in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Ramirez, an independent journalist, says she has been followed around in fancy department stores simply because of the way she looks.

Her mother, Fabiola Hidalgo, has had similar experiences. But she didn't immediately think her appearance was the reason. She recalled one time when she was waiting in line at a bank.

"It was my turn, and a man came and cut in front of me," she said, speaking in Spanish. "And the bank tellers were telling him it was my turn, but he demanded to be served before I was. I just stayed quiet."

But back in her car, Hidalgo started to cry.

"I cried because I felt like the lowest person in the world," she said. "But I thought to myself, 'Well, I'm new to this country, and I don't speak English,' " so maybe there had been something she didn't understand.

Her daughter, Karina Ramirez, gets emotional hearing her mother tell the story. She believes the thing her mother didn't understand was that in the U.S., she would be constantly subjected to racially motivated discrimination.

"When she started telling me about all these instances that she lived, it's like I wasn't there to stand up for her to defend her," Ramirez said.

She says she feels as if it's her responsibility to point out the ways that racial discrimination, even subtle racism, affects her mother's life. Her mother says that thanks to her daughter's lessons, she is learning, and unlike before, she is beginning to speak up.

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Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.