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'Reasonable Suspicion' That Race Matters in the Immigration Debate

In the furor over immigration reform in the U.S., many taking a tougher line cite the law, not the evident ethnicity of the immigrants, for their stance. But that ethnicity matters, new research suggests.
The beach on the Pacific Ocean at the U.S.-Mexico border from the Mexican side. (PHOTO: JAMESREYES/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The beach on the Pacific Ocean at the U.S.-Mexico border from the Mexican side. (PHOTO: JAMESREYES/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Like so many contentious issues in modern America, when talk turns to immigration there are usually two or more conversations happening simultaneously, some of them sotto voce. The jousting terms used in these conversations give a clue to their tenor—are these “illegal aliens,” suggesting they’re both unlawful and somehow out of place, or are they “undocumented workers,” people who dutifully labor away but haven’t taken care of all the paperwork niceties their presence requires.

The call for tougher immigration laws—fix the border, deport the scoundrels, no amnesty for law-breakers—tends to cite the idea of illegality, that these immigrants are criminals because they broke the law when they crossed the border. The counter argument tends to run along ethnic lines—the immigrants we’re afraid of are Mexican and that efforts to push or punish them are based on racial considerations, and therefore any effort to crack down is just thinly veiled racism (and yes, we understand that Latino is an ethnic, not racial, designation).

Researchers found students were harder on people they assumed were law-abiding immigrants from Mexico than they were on people they assumed were law-breaking immigrants from Canada.

That being tough on immigration and immigrants has hurt Republican chances to win over the growing Latino electorate is accepted wisdom, rightly or wrongly, on both sides of the aisle, even as legislators reject the underlying implication. "This law is not about race. It’s about what is illegal," Arizona legislator Russell Pearce told his colleagues during debate on the now infamous SB1070, which allows Arizona law enforcement to stop and check the immigration status of anyone they have “reasonably suspicion” of being in the U.S. illegally. Meanwhile, there’s “reasonable suspicion” that it is, at least partly, indeed about race, according to a new research by three psychologists at the University of Kansas.

Pearce’s quote opens the paper (appearing in a special issue of the journal Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology), which directly asks if tougher legislation is more about “enforcing laws or ethnocentric exclusion.” The research, led by grad student Sahana Mukherjee, is an imperfect vehicle to deliver a final answer on the question—test subjects are young, white undergrads in Lawrence, a flawed proxy for the American electorate or legislators as a whole—but it’s a start.

In two different experiments, researchers found that students were harder on people they assumed were law-abiding immigrants from Mexico than they were on people they assumed were law-breaking immigrants from Canada. Although unstated, the Mexican immigrant presumably was Latino—his name was Josè—while the Canadian (Joseph) was likely white.

“These patterns,” the researchers write, “suggest that support for tough immigration legislation and tolerance for intrusive measures have a basis in something beyond interest in enforcement of laws, as this interest should not differ as a function of immigrant national origin.”

In the first experiment, 98 undergrads—selected in part because they self-identified as white—read an apparent local newspaper story about a cop stopping a man acting suspiciously at an ATM and asking him to produce ID, a la SB1070. Using a seven-point scale, they rated their reactions to the detainee and what happened to him. Their responses, taken as a whole, “endorsed tough punishment and tolerated intrusive enforcement when the detainee was Mexican, but excused illegal behavior and objected to intrusive enforcement when the detainee was Canadian. Indeed, results ... suggest greater concern about protecting human rights—rating tough treatment as less fair and endorsing derogation of the arresting officer—of a law-breaking Canadian immigrant than a law-abiding Mexican immigrant.”

The second experiment, with 172 undergrads, offered the same story but this time the guy being hassled was described as either an undocumented immigrant or a U.S. citizen. Not surprisingly, given the earlier study, tougher enforcement was perceived as OK for undocumented Josè, but not for the undocumented Joseph. (And it was not OK, for either Josè or Joseph, when they were documented, the participants ruled.)

The takeaway, write the researchers, is that if your concern about immigration reform is based solely on a neutral application of the law, “one should expect equal punishment of illegal behavior and equal protection of human rights, regardless of national origin.” That in these experiments it didn’t suggests that some concern about keeping the “other” out—what the academic see as ethnocentric exclusion—played a role.

Again, this is not the last word on the subject. The study participants were by design only a shrinking subsection of the American electorate, and they were chosen more for convenience of the study that because they were ardent culture warriors on the subject of immigration. And as university students, albeit from beet-red Kansas, they presumably might be more liberal than the average voter. But it does add meat to the bones of those arguing the current immigration debate is more about keeping America majority-majority than majority-minority (good luck on that) than it is about enforcing laws. Ironically, such attempts have already backfired: Having a “secure” border helped create a permanent undocumented underclass, since historically workers who passed back and forth through a porous dotted line now choose to stay put north of a solid line.