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Why We Keep Failing to Pass Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Startling new research suggests that conservative opposition to immigration reform may have nothing to do with what’s presented in any legislative bill, but rather how small differences in the way we think about multiculturalism can alter broad attitudes.
A demonstration for immigration reform in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 2013. (Photo: Chad Zuber/Shutterstock)

A demonstration for immigration reform in Washington, D.C., on April 10, 2013. (Photo: Chad Zuber/Shutterstock)

If there’s one thing that politicians from all parties can agree on—at least publicly—it’s that America is the greatest country in the world. The United States is a melting pot of cultural awesomeness that welcomes the best and brightest from around the world. Fortunately for politicians, there’s a legislative initiative that would allow them to translate their theoretical love of multiculturalism into action: Comprehensive immigration reform.

When it comes to actually enacting immigration policies that would allow a more diverse citizenry, however, the consensus evaporates. Twice in the last decade the American political system has generated significant momentum toward passing comprehensive immigration reform, and both times efforts have been stymied by a backlash from a largely white conservative base.

Why does support for reform dissipate once the finish line is in sight?

The most obvious explanation is that the prospect of passage incites previously idle opponents to take action and exert their influence. Under this reasoning there’s not necessarily a growth in opposition; existing opposition just evolves into actions that are likely to have an impact.

Another explanation is that some people genuinely support a vague notion of reform, but once policy details emerge they realize a proposed bill might contain items they find objectionable. This type of discrepancy between the hazy and the precise is visible in polling about government spending, which shows that people support less spending in the abstract but almost no specific cuts, and the Affordable Care Act, for which people hold views of the law’s individual elements that are much more favorable than their views of the law as a whole.

Thinking about multiculturalism in a concrete manner led to more negative attitudes, in part by making whites feel as though American values and cultural practices were in danger of being diminished.

A third explanation for why immigration reform momentum wanes as passage gets closer comes from a new study by Kumar Yogeeswaran of the University of Canterbury and Nilanjana Dasgupta of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Their work shows how small differences in the way we think about multiculturalism have the potential to alter broad attitudes, and portends a discouraging future for immigration reform efforts.

In a series of three experiments the researchers examined whether multiculturalism in concrete terms has a different effect than thinking about it in abstract terms. Prior research suggests that this difference, which psychologists describe using the term “construal level,” can alter attitudes about policy. Studies have found (PDF), for example, that people are more likely to support abstract principles of racial equality than concrete proposals designed to achieve it.

But Yogeeswaran and Dasgupta wanted to go beyond whether construal level influenced support for policies related to multiculturalism. They wanted to know if the difference between abstract and concrete thinking could influence broader attitudes toward Hispanics.

In the researchers’ first experiment white participants read essays about multiculturalism. Construal level was manipulated by having participants read about either why multiculturalism is important (abstract construal condition) or how multiculturalism can be achieved (concrete construal condition) A third group that functioned as a control read an essay on an unrelated topic. After reading the essay participants were asked to come up with five reasons why multiculturalism will help American society (abstract condition) or five ways to achieve it (concrete condition), and then they read answers ostensibly written by other participants. After completing the tasks all participants completed a 27-item survey designed to measure their attitudes toward Hispanics.

The researchers found that participants made to think about multiculturalism in the abstract reported attitudes toward Hispanics that were significantly more positive than those expressed by participants in the control group. On the other hand, participants who saw multiculturalism in concrete terms reported attitudes that were significantly more negative than those of the control group.

A follow-up experiment attempted to uncover why participants reacted this way. For it, the researchers followed the same procedure as in the first experiment, but they also asked participants to rate their agreement with a series of items designed to measure the degree to which their national identity was threatened (e.g. “Americans must strive to maintain their customs and practices in order to avoid the watering down of American culture.”)

As expected, a concrete construal of multiculturalism led to a significantly stronger feeling that national identity was under threat, and this identity threat mediated the relationship between construal level and attitudes toward Hispanics. In other words, thinking about multiculturalism in a concrete manner led to more negative attitudes, in part by making whites feel as though American values and cultural practices were in danger of being diminished.

The third and final experiment investigated whether the outcomes in the first two experiments were influenced by political beliefs. This time both groups of participants read the same information about multiculturalism, but prior to doing so they completed an exercise designed to induce either an abstract or concrete construal. The researchers found that participants who were made to think about multiculturalism in a concrete manner reported more prejudice toward Hispanics and were less open to intergroup contact, but only if they were conservative rather than liberal.

Taken together, the three experiments provide a new explanation for why enacting immigration reform is so difficult. As a bill—and the multicultural ideals it represents—gets closer to passage, it’s bound to be portrayed in a more concrete manner in the media or other public forums. Abstract arguments about the need to include undocumented residents in society will give way to a focus on the best ways to make that happen. This shift in construal level could then increase prejudice against Hispanics and potentially help foment a conservative backlash.

What’s most troubling about the chain of events detailed above is that it shows how opposition might have nothing to do with the policies being proposed. Even if the bill were altered to become more palatable to conservatives, the growing concreteness in how the issue of cultural amalgamation is discussed would drive conservative attitudes in the opposite direction. Any movement toward the goalposts also serves to push them further away.

It may not seem all that surprising that specific immigration proposals can make conservative white Americans feel as though their national identity is under threat. But what’s important about this new research is that it shows how these attitudes may get more intense as passage gets closer, and do so for a reason that's not directly related to new knowledge or increasing feelings of urgency. It’s not just that somebody hears immigrants are coming for all the jobs and finally decides it’s time to take action. It’s that the proximity of the bill’s passage alters how they think about the issue in a way that causes underlying attitudes toward Hispanics to become more negative. And this effect might not be restricted to hardcore opponents. Even conservatives with neutral or positive attitudes toward Hispanics may see their attitudes turn increasingly negative as the debate gets more concrete.

Is there anything in Yogeeswaran and Dasgupta’s work that suggests a way to mitigate these attitude shifts? The role played by national identity threat may suggest a path forward. What if legislators paired the move to concrete discussions with token efforts to affirm the conventional conservative American identity? Perhaps there's value in including symbolic but superficial measures like a proclamation about English being our national language, for example. At the very least, immigration reform supporters may find it helpful to pepper their rhetoric with homages to the great white American cultural values and achievements of the last 250 years.

For now, immigration reform remains stuck in the unique policy purgatory that has characterized the Obama presidency—it may have enough bipartisan support to pass the House, but not enough to be brought up for a vote. Figuring out what has contributed to this stalemate remains an important challenge, and the work of Yogeeswaran and Dasgupta hints at a cause that’s independent of changes in citizen knowledge or the realization of an approaching deadline. The bad news is that if the concreteness of a finalized immigration reform proposal can itself lead to more negative attitudes toward Hispanics, pushing legislation across the finish line may be even more difficult than it appears.