Given recent headlines and racial conflicts, it’s easy to conclude that attitudes about immigration in the U.S. are rooted in racism and prejudice. The Muslim travel ban, Charlottesville protests, and the rescission of DACA all appear to confirm a racist anti-immigrant bias.
While there may be public sentiment for reducing immigration, research by Dr. Matthew Wright, Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Government, and his colleagues indicates Americans may actually be less anti-immigrant than it would appear.
Reconsidering Traditional Thinking
Much of the academic scholarship tends to support the notion that individuals’ attitudes toward immigration policies are related to how they feel about specific groups.
“There’s a great deal of scholarship tying what we’re seeing to a broadly nativist reaction, meaning white native-born people attributing things they don’t like to immigration,” said Dr. Wright. “We’re trying to add a little balance to that perspective.”
Dr. Wright and his team delved into the role of group prejudice vs. alignment with what are often viewed as traditional American values. Their findings suggest that this anti-immigration stance is fueled more by values and misperceptions about groups than what’s traditionally considered racism.
“Our research indicates that people are not motivated by racial bias to the degree that the literature generally assumes,” said Wright. “We think that it’s more likely that people are driven by their values in the sense of broad principles such as following the law, learning basic English, or assimilating to some minimal degree.”
Wright and his team elicited opinions about immigration with a hypothetical situation involving individuals of different ethnicities. When asked if a person should be allowed to immigrate, participants were less likely to say yes when the individual was Latino than if he were German or Chinese. Further, the biases went away if the interviewer provided additional information, such as that the individual speaks English, is a hard worker, and came to the country legally.
“People can often appear like they’re thinking or acting ethnocentrically, but in reality, if it’s just based on misinformation or an incorrect stereotype that can be countered by information, then that’s very different from people lashing out against immigrants,” explains Wright. “Our interpretation is that there is not a real strong animus at the heart of these attitudes.”
Looking to the Dreamers
The rescission of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) is a prime example of how values influence public opinion. It seems contradictory, but many people who strongly support ending DACA are also opposed to deporting the children in question. In this situation, the illegal immigrants were brought here by their parents through no choice of their own.
“People are very sensitive to how the question is asked,” said Wright. “You will get a more positive response if you ask about Dreamers than if you ask about illegal immigrants.”
Removing the Abstract
If Professor Wright’s premise is correct, attitudes about immigration rest more on whether the immigrants exhibit values aligned with public opinion. Value judgements, misperceptions, and commonly held stereotypes are much more easily addressed than deep-seated hatred and racism.
“The question for us is whether America, white people, are just fundamentally ethnocentric and prejudiced, and we’re saying no,” said Dr. Wright. “Some people are. A relatively small percentage of people are, and they’re not going away. In many ways, they are louder than ever, but that’s not most people. The American public is not as anti-immigrant as we are often tempted to believe.”
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