The Data on White Anxiety over Hispanic Immigration

Scott Clement, Washington Post, August 14, 2014

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{snip} What immigrants look like–and where they come from–changes how we see the [immigration] issue.

When immigrants are Hispanic, white Americans worry a lot more.

“Americans think of immigration in an ethnically specific way at this point,”Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studied the impact of news coverage on immigration attitudes, said in an interview. “They think of immigrants as Latino. Latinos trigger an anxiety in some Americans that other ethnic groups simply do not trigger. It changes both attitudes and behaviors on immigration policy.”

Valentino’s view is backed up by a study he conducted with Michigan colleague Ted Brader and Elizabeth Suhay (now of American University) using a high-quality national survey in 2003. White participants in the study read mock Associated Press news stories about increasing immigration. Half of respondents were randomly assigned to read a positive-themed story (“Immigration heartens governors”) and half negative (“Immigration concerns governors”).

In addition to positive and negative stories, the survey randomly assigned each story to focus on either Jose Sanchez from Mexico or Nikolai Vandinsky from Russia, who were described in identical ways besides their name and origin. After reading the story, subjects were asked a series of questions on immigration policy.

Unsurprisingly, those who read a negatively-toned immigration story expressed less support for immigration. But the impact of seeing a negative story featuring a Mexican immigrant was double the size of a negative story about the Russian Immigrant.

Valentino and his colleagues investigated the differing reactions, and found that negative news featuring a Latino immigrant raised whites’ worries and anxieties about increasing immigration, but not for those about Russian immigrants.

Whites who read a negative story featuring an Hispanic immigrant had a strong political reaction. In addition to higher opposition to immigration, they became more supportive of an “English-only” law, asked for more information about the issue and were more apt to send an e-mail to their congressional representative advocating reduced immigration levels when asked in the survey. Negative news about a Russian immigrant had little impact on political motivation.

Valentino and his colleagues found similar results in a separate experiment, based on interviews with local festival attendees, comparing reactions to a Hispanic immigrant and to a European immigrant of different origin–a Dutch Nicholas Van Dyke.

The experimental studies were small–fewer than 100 participants in each grouping–but the effects were statistically significant and large. Just 26 percent of respondents chose to e-mail a member of Congress advocating a reduction in immigration after reading a positive story featuring a Latino immigrant. Nearly half, 45 percent, sent congressional e-mails when the Latino-focused story was negative. But the negative stories had no impact when the subject of the story was Russian.

The findings point to a potentially powerful dynamic during media frenzies about immigration. Negative news about Latino immigrants makes white Americans anxious, driving up opposition to immigration and anti-immigrant activism.

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