President Donald Trump and his allies regularly rail against "criminal illegal aliens." When they do, news reports dutifully note that crime rates among undocumented workers are lower than those among American citizens.
But this false, defamatory rhetoric appears to be having its intended effect.
That's one conclusion of a new study that examines how white Americans label individuals as "illegals." It reports that news that a minority-group member has broken the law makes people much more likely to believe that alleged offender is in the country illegally.
"Saying an immigrant committed a crime had a larger impact on suspicions of illegality than saying they were, say, Mexican," said Ariela Schachter of Washington University, who co-authored the study with University of Chicago sociologist Rene Flores. That finding held true for both white Democrats and white Republicans.
"There's a clear implication that the Trump administration's rhetoric on immigrant criminality is driving these beliefs—which, again, are not based on reality," they add.
The study, published in the American Sociological Review, focused on a survey experiment featuring 1,515 non-Hispanic white Americans. Participants were presented with randomly assigned profiles of individual immigrants. After reading each, they indicated whether they thought the subject lacked proper documentation.
Each participant evaluated 10 profiles, which varied in numerous ways, including the person's nation of origin; their level of education and fluency in English; whether they had received any government benefits; whether they had a police record; and, if so, for how serious an infraction.
Unsurprisingly, being identified as a native of Mexico greatly increases one's chance of being tagged undocumented. "The average Italian and Indian immigrants have a 21 percent probability of being classified as undocumented, whereas the figure triples for Mexicans," the researchers report. They add that other South Americans "are highly suspect as well."
"As expected, low-status occupations do raise suspicions, but only when they are informal jobs like gardener, cook, or day laborer," they write. "Jobs in the informal economy ... have become markers of illegality."
But the variable that had the largest impact on perceptions of illegality was the person's criminal record, or lack thereof.
Aside from minor infractions like jaywalking, "any kind of criminal record substantially increases suspicions of illegality," the researchers report. "Committing a violent crime increases suspicions of illegality by 18 percentage points, relative to not having a record.
"Stereotypical immigrant crimes, like identity theft, increase perceived illegality by 21 percentage points," they write. "Stereotypes about immigrant criminality appear to have taken root in the non-Hispanic white U.S. public across political affiliations and education levels."
Flores and Schachter report another stereotype—that undocumented residents are taking advantage of such programs as welfare, Medicaid, or food stamps—is largely confined to Republicans. "Among Democrats, receiving government benefits reduces perceived illegality," they write. "(This) is indeed accurate, as undocumented immigrants are excluded from receiving most government benefits."
But the inaccurate belief that undocumented immigrants are more likely to be criminals has seeped into the larger culture. As the researchers note, this could have practical repercussions, including making landlords reluctant to rent to, and employers reluctant to hire, people they know—or simply suspect—are in this category.
As Schachter puts it: "Individuals who fit this profile likely face poor treatment and discrimination because of suspicions of their illegality, regardless of their actual documentation."
Indeed. As this study shows, when it comes to immigrants, "illegality" is often in the eye of the beholder.