Protesters stand outside the US Citizenship and Immigration Services building, Saturday, May 1, 2010 in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Let’s call a spade a spade. Opposition to immigration is not a concern rooted in personal economic concerns. Neither is it a concern having to do with state’s rights. Anti-immigrant sentiment isn’t even about immigrants as a whole. As rigorous social scientific research shows, opposition to immigration is closely linked to the negative racial animus toward one very specific group, Latinos.
Over the course of the GOP primary season, anti-immigrant rhetoric has been a stump speech staple of the candidates. The focus of Republican candidates is to keep new immigrants out and get those here to leave. The Republican primary has become a quien es más macho contest of who has the biggest anti-immigrant badge. The top anti-immigrant badge of honor goes to Herman Cain and his advocacy for an electrified border fence, while Rick Perry lost out by having aided Texas college students who happened to be undocumented.
The question is whether the GOP contenders would feel the same if the undocumented students in question were Irish or if the folks trying to get past the electrified fence were Canadians. Would Romney feel as strongly about self-deportation if the immigrants were French?
Though I have a hunch, I can’t say with certainty what the candidates would say if the immigrants in question were not Latino. However, I can look to what the general American public thinks about immigration and how their opposition depends on what immigrant group is made salient.
Today, as in the past, opponents of immigration argue that newcomers displace native workers and create a fiscal drain by utilizing public services. The issue is not about the immigrants themselves, but about the material and economic threat they pose. Under this line of reasoning, Latinos shouldn’t take the immigration debate personally; it’s not about them, it’s about a larger policy concern.
The immigration debate got very personal for Latinos in California in 1994 when Proposition 187 passed, denying undocumented persons basic social services such as a public education. The justification for Prop 187 was to curb financial waste, not negative feelings toward Latinos. In the wake of Prop 187 UC Berkeley political scientist Jack Citrin and his colleagues (1997) put the political rhetoric of economic self-interest to the test. Using American National Election Study data they found that personal economic circumstances did little to influence one’s position on immigration. In contrast, they found that ideology and negative feelings toward Hispanics and Asians drove opposition to immigration.
This study, however, did not consider whether negative feelings toward white immigrants would also lead to a preference for less immigration. It could still be the fact that the American public dislikes immigration because they have a generalized animus toward all immigrants. To test this proposition, political scientists at the University of Michigan (Brader, Valentino, and Suhay 2008) conducted a study where survey respondents were asked about immigration in the context of a story that either featured José Sanchez or Nikolai Vandinsky. The researchers found that negative feelings about immigration grew when the immigrant group in question was Mexican rather than Russian.
The argument could still be made that opposition to immigration is related to a stigmatization of non-white immigrant groups in general and not Latinos in particular. To get at this question Nick Valentino and his colleagues at the University of Michigan looked at how evaluations of Asians, African-Americans and Latinos influenced opinion on immigration. Negative feelings toward Latinos had the largest effect on restrictive immigration preferences. In comparison, sentiments toward blacks and Asians did not have a significant role in whites’ immigration policy preferences.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is about Latinos. Negative feelings toward this group drive anti-immigration stances. The harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric that political leaders use only exacerbates negative feelings toward Latinos. It is a vicious cycle that in the short-term uses fear to round up votes but ultimately uses Latinos as a scapegoat and prevents a serious policy issue from being addressed.