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Implicit bias against Latinos affects all immigrants, Vanderbilt research shows

Efren Perez

Most Americans, despite their best intentions, harbor a negative bias against Latino immigrants, which deeply colors their outlook on policy proposals for immigration reform, according to research findings by Vanderbilt University political scientist Efren Perez.

“I found that when the issue of immigration is broached, whether legal or illegal,   many individuals automatically think of Latino immigrants,” Perez said. “These attitudes, which lurk in one’s subconscious, can influence people’s judgments and behavior, often without their awareness and despite their best efforts to avoid them.”

In an original survey-experiment, the assistant professor of political science used the implicit association test, a measure of how fast people are able to sort certain words into different categories, to assess people’s implicit attitude toward Latino immigrants. “First, I found that the participants clearly had an automatic negative attitude toward Latino immigrants,” Perez said. “Second, these implicit attitudes shape individuals’ immigration policy judgments, even when survey participants were consciously directed to focus on non-Latino immigrants.”

Perez said his research provides insight into why there is intense opposition among many voters in the United States to enacting any type of immigration reform, and should prompt widespread concern among immigrants from all countries, including those from Latin America.

Perez is not surprised that President Obama is renewing his push for immigration reform. “The administration understands the long term importance of building on the support of Hispanics who voted Democratic in 2008,” Perez said. “If you look at the state-by-state victories that Obama received, especially out West, garnering the Hispanic vote was crucial. [rquote]Now the irony with some states passing laws perceived as anti-immigrant is that it could end up politicizing a segment of the Latino community that never attached much importance to its ethnic identity. [/rquote]Many of these U.S.-born Hispanics have been here for several generations, but they’re taking notice because of the bluntness of the rhetoric surrounding these types of proposals.”

Perez’s research demonstrates that many people make little distinction between Latino immigrants and Latinos born in the United States.

“The line between foreign-born and native-born Latinos is blurred, which has implications for the application of controversial immigration laws in Arizona and now Tennessee,” he said.

Perez’s article “Explicit Evidence on the Import of Implicit Attitudes: The IAT and Immigration Policy Judgments” is to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Political Behavior.