Research News

Harsh immigration rhetoric pushes Latinos away: Survey

When Latinos hear tough talk about immigrants and immigration from politicians, their level of political trust is reduced and they start identifying more with their ethnic group than other qualities such as class or religion.

“The temptation to berate foreigners for their alleged shortcomings is hard for many politicians to resist,” said Efrén Pérez of Vanderbilt University, who studied the results of a national sample of Latinos. “Such rhetoric seems to pay politically.”

Survey results

The survey, “Xenophobic Rhetoric and Its Political Effects on Immigrants and Their Co-Ethnics,” was conducted online by Palo Alto, Calif.-based Knowledge Networks of 1,203 Latinos, all 18 and over, well before Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. The study was administered in English or Spanish. Sixty-seven percent of respondents identified as Democrats, 29 percent as Republicans. The results were weighted by Pérez to be nationally representative.

Pérez also wrote a blog post about the study for the London School of Economics United States Politics and Policy website.

Trump factor

Businessman Donald Trump has made the immigration issue a major component of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He accused illegal Mexican immigrants of bringing drugs and crime into the United States during the announcement of the launch of his campaign, and has returned often to the topic.

“When politicians decry illegal immigration, they accomplish two things among Latinos,” said Pérez, associate professor of political science. “First, they raise the importance of ethnicity relative to other forms of identity. That is, they make Latinos think of themselves as ethnics, rather than as working class, Catholic or Democrats.

“Second, they smear this identity’s values. By focusing on a negative aspect of a larger group, the high worth that some Latinos place on their ethnicity is degraded.”

The effect is similar to bringing up welfare recipients when discussing African Americans or terrorists when discussing Muslims, Pérez said.

Ethnic identity

Latinos who strongly identify with their ethnicity – or high identifiers – react to being targeted by a politician like Trump by undertaking political efforts to restore the status of their group. Low identifiers go the other way, tending to give up efforts to bolster their group’s status.

Most of the reactions described above manifest most strongly in foreign-born immigrants, and then weaken as the generations go by, Pérez said.

“This suggests that politics can limit the incorporation of immigrant groups into America’s political and cultural mainstream,” Pérez said. “The assimilation of immigrant groups can be facilitated through politics – and, it can be made much more difficult just as well.”