Bias, Stereotypes and Our Views of Immigrants

By Carola Suárez-Orozco and Marcelo Suárez-Orozco

All of us of carry biases with us. We learn them as part of our socialization into our communities. Biases influence what we see, what we believe, and how we understand the world. Many of our biases are informed by stereotypes – generalized ideas and images about groups of people. It would nearly be impossible to live in the world and not be exposed to stereotypes. While it is easy to dismiss prejudices due to ignorance, sometimes stereotypes are exacerbated by how much news and information you consume. As much as we might fight against it, many of our views of immigrants are influenced by stereotypes. What are the most common stereotypes about immigrants today and how do they impact how people think and act?

Immigration, “Illegality,” Crime, and Terror

The most serious concern about immigration today is the fear that immigrants are bringing crime and terror to the new country. Recent anti-immigrant rhetoric by politicians has added fervor to this meme. Immigrants in general, and undocumented immigrants, particularly those from Latin America, are depicted as “rapists” and “violent criminals and murders,” whereas immigrants from the Middle East have been demonized as “terrorists.” During the campaign, the President, called for an immediate ban of further immigration of Muslims to the U.S and a hault to the refugee program. Similar anti-immigrant sentiments are found throughout Europe and Africa. The recent explosive growth in the numbers of new refugees flowing into Europe coupled with the Paris – Brussels terrorist attacks have stoked anti-immigrant sentiments on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the U.S., immigration is routinely re-casted as “illegal immigration.” When adults were asked what word came to mind when thinking about immigrants, about 12% used the word, “illegal.” A recent Gallup poll revealed that unauthorized immigration ranks in the top dozen major national concerns. Indeed, the idea of “illegal” immigration seems incommensurable with our national secular religion revering the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the rule of law. Framing immigration along the legal-illegal axis recasts many immigrants as inherent criminals whose very presence affronts basic American values of individual responsibility and the rule of law.

The propagation of the anti-immigrant meme, and the concurring increase in hate speech and violence towards immigrants are a part and parcel of a new culture of intolerance and prejudice, now living in full daylight on both sides of the Atlantic. Dehumanizing immigrants and stigmatizing the children of immigrants threatens and further tears the fabric of the nation. Anti-immigrant narratives depicting new arrivals as criminals, drug dealers, human traffickers, and terrorists are also on the rise in Europe, South Africa, and elsewhere. While the power of this meme is extraordinary, it is largely data free: the preponderance of evidence suggests that immigrants are significantly less likely to commit crimes than comparable samples of non-immigrants.

Economic Malaise

Opinion polls demonstrate that immigrants are now viewed as an economic burden. They are said to take jobs away from their native-born counterparts, depress wages, and exhaust social services. In the U.S., 50% of adults recently reported that immigrants are making the economy worse. Immigration is blamed for either causing or aggravating the unemployment problem. In the U.S., a common charge is that immigrants do not pay taxes and do not contribute to Social Security; yet they benefit from public services such as public education, welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid. The charge that immigrants hurt the economy, depress wages and abuse basic social services is, again, contrary to the empirical evidence. Indeed, the preponderance of evidence suggests that immigrants represent a moderate net surplus in a variety of economic indicators. What is historically true is the tight correlation between economic downturns and anti-immigrant sentiments; when there is a difficult economic situation, immigrants serve as ready scapegoats in times of crisis. Similar economic concerns are echoed in France and much of the rest of Western Europe, in Australia, South Africa and elsewhere. The high rates of unemployment among the second generation across the globe, especially in Europe, add concerns about the long-term prospects of new immigrants.

Concerns about Integration

On both sides of the Atlantic, immigrants are feared for weakening social cohesion, diluting cultural mores, self-segregation, worsening economic woes, and for disloyalty and terror. In the U.S. a recent survey found that 34% of American adults reported that immigrants are making social and moral values worse. In Europe, there are growing concerns over so-called “no-go zones,” such as the infamous banlieues in Paris, and the ghettos in Brussels, where youth alienation, unemployment, crime, and self-radicalization are creating new pipelines to global and domestic terror. In the U.S., there are isomorphic concerns that immigrants, from Latin America in particular, refuse to learn English and self-segregate in co-ethnic ghettos where the second generation gravitate towards the underground economy, drug trafficking, and gang culture. Similar anti-immigrant narratives centering on self-segregation, lack of English language acquisition, and the flourishing of countercultural criminal gangs are echoed in the U.K.

Yet, other concerns center on questions of transnational ties and the unwillingness to fully invest and integrate into the new society. Many immigrants are said to fail to become fully engaged citizens. When they become citizens, they are accused of taking on citizenship for mere instrumental purposes (e.g. for economic benefits or welfare). Accusations of divided loyalties also center on the practice of sending remittances to family members remaining in the home country. These fears over divided loyalties are reminiscent of the fretting of the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s over the untrustworthiness of Irish, German, and Italian immigrants said to follow slavishly the commands of their Roman Pope.

In the U.S., there has been a deep and reoccurring concern with every wave of non-English speaking immigrants about linguistic integration. Benjamin Franklin famously ruminated that Germans would “never adopt our Language or Customs” and similar concerns were voiced during the last great wave of migration about Eastern Europeans and Italians. Yet, at every turn, while immigrants initially maintained their home language, their children inevitably gravitated to English, and over time, gave up the language of their parents turning the U.S. into a “cemetery for languages.” Over the last quarter century, there is a palpable concern about the flourishing of the Spanish language in the U.S.; leading to a number of English-Only ballot initiatives in several states. Yet again, these concerns are empirically misplaced. Furthermore, they ignore the considerable linguistic, cognitive, and cultural advantages of bilingualism.
While language in the U.S. has been a primary symbolic integration preoccupation, in Europe, the overarching concern involves religion (specifically Islam) and social practices (such as arranged marriages, female genital cutting, and headscarves)—all said to be incommensurable with European ideals of gender equality, autonomy, and individual choice. In the aftermath of the London, Paris, and Brussels attacks, the aforementioned concerns pale in comparison to the worries of the descendants of immigrants reeking jihadist havoc throughout Europe.

In short order, on both sides of the Atlantic, immigration has gone from a state of “benign neglect” to mild annoyance, to intense concern and apprehension, and, more recently, to panic. Growing inequality and economic stagnation along with the crisis of unauthorized immigration and home-grown terrorism have aligned into a perfect storm. The long-term demographic changes add to these deepening concerns. In an experimental study comprised of 98 White Americans from all regions of the country, researchers found that when participants were told that White Americans would no longer be the majority in the U.S., they became more reluctant to embrace diversity.

At a time when nearly all demographic growth moving forward will be via the children of immigrants, both in the U.S. and throughout Europe, the current immigration malaise threatens the fabric of the nation, subverts the remaking of the social contract, undermines economic vitality, puts millions of immigrant-origin children at risk, and is antithetical to fundamental democratic ideals and elemental notions of social justice. Immigrants and their children are here – on both sides of the Atlantic – to stay. Their future is our future.

We next, turn to considering the role of stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination in shaping opinions, its implications on immigrant-origin children and youth, as well as its consequences for civic society. We also discuss what we can do to change hearts and minds and public discourse in this area.

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Carola Suárez-Orozco is a professor at the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and co-director of the Institute for Immigration, Globalization and Education. Marcelo Suárez-Orozco is the Wasserman Dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Together, they serve as Co-Founders of Reimagining Migration.

(This article was originally published on the ReImagining Migration Website)