Credit President Trump with consistency in cultivating public fears of immigrants:
- “When Mexico sends its people . . . they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” (2015)
- A January, 2018 DonaldJTrump.com ad offered images of an illegal-immigrant murderer while a narrator referred to “evil, illegal immigrants who commit violent crimes,” noting that “Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.”
- “If we don’t get rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill … if we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown,” Trump said two weeks later.
Horrific rare incidents feed the narrative, as in Trump’s oft retold story of the Mexican national who killed a young woman in San Francisco (with a ricocheted bullet), or in his February 6th tweet about the unauthorized immigrant drunk driver who killed a Baltimore Colts linebacker.
The effect of this rhetoric and these publicized incidents appears in a recent Gallup survey: “On the issue of crime, Americans are five times more likely to say immigrants make the situation worse rather than better (45% to 9%, respectively).” Are they (and the President) right?
With 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., there will, of course, be ample opportunities to illustrate both immigrant horrors and heroism. Mindful that emotionally compelling stories can illustrate larger truths or deceive us, I searched for data that would answer this question: Are the President’s words illustrating a painful fact that justifies anti-immigrant views, or are they fear mongering demagoguery? Here’s what I found (drawn from my contribution to an upcoming social psychology symposium on human gullibility):
Immigrants who are poor and less educated may fit our image of criminals. Yet studies find that, compared with native-born Americans, immigrants commit less violent crime (Butcher & Piehl, 2007; Riley, 2015). “Immigrants are less likely than the native-born to commit crimes,” confirms a National Academy of Sciences report (2015). After analyzing incarceration rates, the conservative Cato Institute (2017) confirmed that “immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than natives relative to their shares of the population. Even illegal immigrants are less likely to be incarcerated than native-born Americans.” Noncitizens are reportedly 7 percent of the U.S. population and 6 percent of state and federal prisoners (KFF, 2018; Rizzo, 2018). Moreover, as the number of unauthorized immigrants has tripled since 1990 (Krogstad et al., 2017), the U.S. crime rate plummeted.
Alas, when pitted against memorable anecdotes, data—which are merely the sum of all anecdotes—often lose. The availability heuristic—the human tendency to estimate the commonality of an event based on its mental availability (often influenced by its vividness) frequently hijacks human judgments. When data on immigrant arrest or prison population proportions are set against this 2.5 minute excerpt from the 2018 State of the Union address—highlighting the teary parents of two daughters reportedly murdered by a gang with illegal immigrant members—which will people more likely remember?
Moreover, social psychologists Leaf Van Boven and Paul Slovic recently noted that the White House has also promoted its immigrants-as-killers thesis with misleading statistics. “Nearly 3 in 4 individuals convicted of terrorism-related charges are foreign-born,” the President tweeted last month. But that statement, and the administration report on which it was based, were “deeply misleading” the psychologists explain, for two reasons. First, the report excluded domestic terrorists, whom Americans fear most, and was inflated with tenuously relevant terrorism-related activities such as perjury and petty theft.
Second, the scary-sounding statistic exploited people’s statistical illiteracy. Consider, they say, that 3 in 4 NBA players are African-American. Even so, “a vanishingly small” percentage of African-American men—less than 0.01 percent—play in the NBA. Thus, knowing only that a man is African-American, the chances are 99.99+ percent that he is not an NBA player. And knowing only that someone has been born outside the U.S., you can be similarly confident that the person is not a terrorist, or a killer.
Donald Trump’s fear mongering and repeated misrepresentation of truth has me thinking again of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four—a world where repeated falsehoods come to be believed: “Freedom is slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.” “War is peace.” I do wonder: When Trump proclaims these falsehoods, does he know they are untrue, or does he believe what he proclaims?
Pope Francis offered a possible answer, quoting Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “People who lie to themselves and listen to their own lie come to such a pass that they cannot distinguish the truth within them, or around them, and so lose all respect for themselves and for others.”