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Immigration Update

Jutta Tobias, James Marshall Scholar 2009-10
Chris Woodsie, SPSSI Policy Coordinator

Psychologists know that whenever groups come in contact, they cannot help but categorize. The potential for conflict starts here; and all sorts of social evils follow, such as ingroup preference, depersonalization of the other, intergroup distrust and competition. Intergroup contact can help reduce prejudice, but only when there are no status disparities between groups. Sadly, as the new Arizona immigration laws illustrate, Marilynn Brewer was right, “… contact is not enough.” The Arizona legislation that mandates local police officers to enforce federal immigration laws is particularly alarming to psychologists concerned about prejudice, for a number of reasons.

For one, it stigmatizes undocumented workers, and conflates the status of being an illegal resident with criminal behavior in general. But it’s a myth that today’s ever-increasing influx of immigration, legal or not, means more crime. According to Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, first generation immigrants over the last dozen or so years are 45% less likely to commit violent crimes than Americans born in this country, independent of their immigration status. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants in the United States are not involved in narcotics trade at all. They work, in the low-skill jobs that American employers offer them.

In addition, Arizona’s new immigration laws are likely to drive a wedge between community members and local police officers. A recent survey among Utah residents faced with the prospect of legislation similar to the Arizona laws, published by Phillip Atiba Goff and his colleagues at The Consortium for Police Leadership in Equity, revealed that white residents indicated that their trust in local police enforcement would significantly decrease if Arizona-style laws were enforced. This is striking because white citizens are unlikely targets of additional police checks. It evokes the notion of procedural fairness, i.e. Tom Tyler’s theory that the legitimacy of authorities is correlated with judgments about the fairness with which they treat those in their care. Policy-makers should pay attention to this research. This is because procedural fairness ‘trumps’ distributive justice – even if people may not like the particular outcomes they get, they tend to prefer fair procedures. If Goff et al.’s research is any indication of Arizona’s likely social reality going forward, then mainstream America should worry about the increasing inequality that racial profiling of Latinos, or Latino-lookalikes, brings to Arizona. Inequality of this sort may well produce more, not fewer, social problems for all, not just for the targets of discrimination. An extensive recent meta-study published by the Equality Trust demonstrates this extraordinarily strong correlation.

In conclusion, the beliefs that proponents of this new legislation hold about immigrants and the efficacy of the new laws in ‘dealing with them’ are unlikely to reflect actual reality going forward. The Arizona laws are more likely a classic tale of group-based prejudice and discrimination, where perception is the new reality, detrimental to all. Anti-immigration sentiment may well be the biggest social issue of our time. As SPSSI members, let’s dedicate even more of our research and advocacy efforts to help eliminate this social problem.

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