Mexican immigrants, President Trump has repeatedly told his approving base, are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In this week’s West Virginia rally he highlighted Mollie Tibbetts’ accused “illegal alien” killer as a vivid example. Hence the wish to “build a wall”—to keep out those who, we are told, would exploit Americans and take their jobs.
In an earlier 2018 essay, I responded to the inaccuracy of fear mongering about immigrant crime. But consider a different question: Who believes it? Is it people who live in regions with a greater number of unauthorized immigrants, and who have suffered the presumed crime, conflict, and competition?
At the recent Sydney Symposium on Social Psychology, Christian Unkelbach (University of Cologne) reported an intriguing finding: In Germany, anti-immigrant views are strongest in the states with fewest immigrants. Across Germany’s 16 states, intentions to vote for the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany [AfD]) was greatest in states with the fewest asylum applications. (My thanks to Dr. Unkelbach for permission to share his translated figure.)
I wondered: Might a similar pattern emerge in U.S. states? To find out, I combined two data sets:
- A 2016 Pew report provided data on the percentage of unauthorized immigrants in each state’s population.
- A 2016 PRRI report provided state-by-state data on immigrant acceptance.
The result? Voila! In the United States, more immigrants predicts more state-level acceptance of immigrants. And fewer immigrants predicts more fear of immigrants. (West Virginia, with the lowest unauthorized immigrant proportion, also is the least immigrant-supportive.) Moreover, the U.S. correlations are very similar to the German:
- Across the 16 German states, the correlation between immigrant noncitizen population and anti-immigrant attitudes was -.61.
- Across the 50 U.S. states, the correlation between immigrant noncitizen population and immigrant-supportive attitudes was +.72.
The legendary prejudice researcher Thomas Pettigrew would not be surprised. In a new article at age 87 (I want to be like him when I grow up), Pettigrew reports that in 477 studies of nearly 200,000 people across 36 cultures, intergroup contact predicted lower prejudice in every culture. With cross-racial contact, especially cooperative contact, people from South Africa to the United States develop more favorable racial attitudes. In a new study by Jared Nai and colleagues, living in a racially diverse U.S. neighborhood—or even just imagining doing so—leads people to identify more with all humanity, and to help strangers more.
As straight folks get to know gay folks, they, too, become more gay-supportive. And, these new data suggest, as citizens interact with and benefit from their immigrant neighbors, they, too, become more open-hearted and welcoming.
In my own Midwestern town, where minority students (mostly Hispanic) are a slight majority of public school students, these yard signs (this one from my front yard) abound. We have known enough immigrants—as neighbors, colleagues, business owners, and workers—to know that they, like our own immigrant ancestors, can be a blessing.
[Afterword: In kindly commenting on this essay, Thomas Pettigrew noted that one exception to the contact-with-immigrants benefit occurs “when the infusion of newcomers is large and sudden. Then threat takes over without the time for contact to work its magic” (quoted with permission).]