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Fear of Disloyalty Drives Anti-Immigrant Bias

New research finds that majority-group members are wary of newcomers who hold dual identities.
Graffiti at a deserted refugee camp in Calais, France.

Graffiti at a deserted refugee camp in Calais, France.

Fear of immigrants remains such a potent force in American life that the Republican Party is overtly relying on it in advance of the mid-term elections. But why, exactly, do so many people see a newcomer to the nation and perceive a threat?

New research suggests it's a matter of perceived loyalty. The latest findings report that immigrants who see themselves—or are viewed as—having dual identities are less likely to be seen as people who can be depended upon if and when the country finds itself in a crunch.

"Humans are acutely attuned to the loyalty of newcomers," writes a research team led by psychologist Jonas Kunst of Yale University and the University of Oslo. The team argues that we are instinctively attuned to "loyalty cues," and, for many citizens, a newcomer's dual identity sends up a red flag.

"Although most minority-group members prefer to identify with their minority group while simultaneously identifying with the majority group, majority-group members tend to expect them to relinquish their minority-group identity," the researchers write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. "Perception of disloyalty to the majority group is a central process underpinning this bias."

The researchers describe five studies that provide evidence of this dynamic in a variety of contexts and cultures. In one, 116 white Americans recruited online were asked to evaluate "Mohammed, a young man who came to the United States some years ago hoping to find a better life here."

Approximately half of the participants were told that Mohammed "identifies with being American as well as being Arab." The others learned that he "identifies only with being American, and not with being Arab." They were then asked to estimate Mohammed's level of loyalty to the U.S., and whether he should be allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army.

"Majority-group members were less approving of a dually identified immigrant joining their army as a soldier, because they perceived him as being disloyal to the majority group," the researchers report.

They argue that this finding reflects "the coalitional psychology of humans"—an evolutionary hangover from the species' ancient past, in which tribes battled for resources with other tribes. That instinct "makes people especially sensitive to possible disloyalty in contexts of intergroup threat or potential danger."

Another study discovered similar dynamics among 310 Poles who were asked to evaluate a Russian immigrant. If they were informed that "Ivan Sokolov" identified as both Russian and Polish, as opposed to exclusively Polish, he was viewed as "less loyal to the majority group."

"Our manipulation did not lead to generalized, indiscriminate bias against Russians," the researchers add, "but specifically targeted Russian immigrants with dual identification."

Insisting that immigrants completely stop identifying with their countries of origin would be asking a lot. But Kunst argues there is value in understanding what may be a major factor driving anti-immigrant prejudice.

"If the common assumption is that immigrant groups are disloyal to the nation they move to," he says, "challenging this assumption might offset this kind of skepticism."

In other words, we need to be taught that someone can think of themselves as an Arab-American or Mexican-American and still be a devoted, dutiful American. Hyphens are not a sign of disloyalty.