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Could Resistance to Comprehensive Immigration Reform Really Be About Ethnic Stereotypes?

Resistance to a legal path to citizenship for immigrants who have already come to the U.S. illegally may be rooted in dangerous stereotypes of Hispanics as criminals that hurt all of us and distract from greater threats.
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As the White House and Congress jockey over elements of an immigration reform bill that will likely be introduced in the very near future, we need to consider the possibility that part of the logjam may be attributable to criminal stereotypes of Hispanics. Although immigration reform would apply equally to immigrants from all countries who illegally enter the United States, there is a reason that some of the most restrictive anti-immigration policies have come from the Southwest: States like Arizona and Texas share a border with Mexico whose residents are predominantly Hispanic. We simply do not see the same levels of anti-immigration sentiment about individuals from predominantly white countries.

Several national studies conducted over the last 15 years show that public support for various social and criminal control efforts is statistically linked to the perception that Hispanics--regardless of their citizenship status--represent a potentially troubling threat to society. In the U.S., recent research has demonstrated that Hispanics are often typified as dangerous, drug traffickers, drug users, predatory, ruthlessly violent, gang bangers, and chronic offenders with innate criminality. Particularly in the Southwest, Hispanics--whether legal residents or not--are also frequently stereotyped as illegal immigrants, a label associated with fear of Hispanic immigration and related crimes.

These negative stereotypes can be powerful. Not only does public support for increased social control result from stereotypes of Hispanics as criminals, but these stereotypes have the capacity to influence the implementation or obstruction of public policies, such as those relating to immigration reform.

Published in 2011, my own national survey research confirmed the effect of negative Hispanic stereotypes on public support for increased social controls. It also found that, regardless of several other relevant influences, the public is more supportive of harsh policies in states with larger Hispanic populations and in states where the percentage of Latin American-born residents is higher. Interestingly, individuals in states with higher general immigration rates were actually not harsher in their policy preferences, a finding that suggests Hispanic stereotypes are driving public attitudes about immigration and not a general dislike of immigrants, per se, since so many other U.S. immigrants are not Hispanic.

The Hispanic population in the United States is now the largest (15 percent) and fastest growing (60 percent since 1980) minority in the country. Further, it is estimated that non-Hispanic whites will comprise only 50 percent of the U.S. population by 2050 before essentially becoming an ethnic minority. At the same time that the U.S. Hispanic population has expanded, there has been a proliferation of these unfortunate stereotypes linking Hispanics with general criminality. In fact, the growing characterizations of Hispanics as presumably threatening have clear parallels with long established racial stereotypes frequently applied to African American men. For example, as has been the case with African Americans, research shows that perceptions of a growing racial threat--regardless of their accuracy--are typically met with increased public support for various forms of social control. Further, crime-related minority threat is also manifest in more restrictive policies, such as higher rates of arrest, expanding resources for and size of both law enforcement and corrections, growing rates of incarceration, and more executions, in places with proportionally more blacks and Hispanics. While these studies have tended to focus on the criminal justice system as the primary facilitator of social control, immigration laws are another mechanism by which a group of people who are stereotyped as a criminal threat may be controlled.

In light of the reinforcement of negative stereotypes of Hispanics, it should not have come as a surprise that one element of Arizona's 2010 anti-immigration bill endorsed by Governor Jan Brewer was that it essentially encouraged "racial profiling" of suspected undocumented immigrants. Coupled with the steady growth of the State's population of Hispanic residents, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that many may resist an influx of more Hispanic immigrants and oppose granting a path to citizenship for those who initially broke the law to be here.

The bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that was recently introduced by the "Gang of Eight" in the U.S. Senate includes a number of policy measures that would enable the approximately 12 million illegal immigrants a lawful process for achieving legal residency or citizenship as well as making the immigration process for other potential immigrants clearer and fairer. While many are supportive of this bill, resistance to a legal path to citizenship for immigrants who have already come to the U.S. illegally may be rooted in dangerous stereotypes of Hispanics as criminals that hurt all of us and distract from greater threats. Addressing these stereotypes head-on could be the key to securing its passage.