Immigration is not the most emotionally charged political debate in America today (abortion is far more emotional). But immigration sits at the nexus of several extremely emotional topics like identity, race, class, and inclusiveness (here is an excellent book on this intersection). But does public lead or follow how political leaders behave and pass laws? As is becoming a theme, the answer is a bit complicated.
In a recent study that examined how sentiments expressed on Twitter changed in relation to an extremist anti-immigration law passed in Arizona, Rene Flores found that anti-immigrant policies can “stir the pot” and mobilize anti-immigrant individuals. This mobilization effect was narrowly targeted at the target of the policy, so in this case the mobilization against Latinos did not result in a mobilization against African-Americans or Asian immigrants. Even so, the effect is real — racist people really do get emboldened by racist policy and create the impression that racism is growing in popularity. It matters.
And this emboldening can be contagious. What we think of as “the public” is not the sum total of everyone in a community — it is usually a combination of the most vocal, and the most willing to speak up to journalists or in instruments like surveys. A major challenge to creating any sort of poll is a respondent giving answers that reflect the assumed biases of the polling company, rather than their own beliefs. In elections were race is a factor, this is called the Bradley Effect, whereby people will tell pollsters they’ll vote for a minority candidate but intend to vote for a white candidate; more broadly in surveys it’s called the response bias. This bias can have a major effect on how the media frame issues, and snowball unpopular opinions to a perceived popularity.
Thus, we have a mechanism for how normalizing anti-immigrant attitudes with anti-immigrant policies can change the makeup of public opinion on a topic by making anti-immigrant people more vocal and others who may think it is expected to be anti-immigrant to voice those sentiments. Think of how politicians bandwagon on catch phrases like “of course we should enforce the law” when they really want to change the law in a more humane direction (there’s also the opposite, overenforcement, which is how the Trump White House justifies its cruelty toward migrants). The feedback loop of media covering racist perspectives on immigration as if they’re mainstream creates the perception effect that immigrants are less accepted than they really are, which can have a further effect on how pro-immigrant people mobilize. In other words, opinion and perception don’t exist in a vacuum — they can both drive outcomes and be shaped by the media and political environment.
As an example, consider how Trump’s first campaign speech, wherein he called Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, resonated in previously fringe areas of white grievance politics. Marilyn Mao, of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said that the white supremacist movement had been “energized” by the rhetoric he deployed to talk about immigrants. Stormfront, a white supremacist website, fulsomely praised Trump in the earliest days of his campaign; former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke has repeatedly praised Trump, and the neo-nazi Richard Spencer celebrated the election with a Nazi salute while screaming “Heil Trump.”
Groups that previously acted as marginal began to act like they were mainstream. The media dutifully followed the trend and flooded the zone with chummy profiles of white supremacists that portrayed them as if they were valid members of society instead of the outcasts they were just a year previously. This is a feedback loop, whereby the perception of white supremacy being mainstream leads to media treatment of it as mainstream — and it can lead to regular people thinking it is a mainstream belief, too.
The data about how emboldened white supremacy has become is worrying. Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said that Trump’s use of dehumanizing rhetoric was being “taken as a permission-giving by criminal elements who go out and act on their words.” Hate crimes are rising precipitously, and there are worrying signs that police forces are actively collaborating with far right and white supremacist protest leaders even at the federal level. The mainstreaming of this belief system is measurable, and it is growing: a recent Pew survey found a majority of Americans think that race relations are getting worse, and think this division is being driven by Donald Trump and his administration.
However, it is not yet clear that Trump’s rhetoric has influenced the overall attitude of the public toward immigrants. A recent national survey shows that while only 45% of Americans know most immigrants are in the country legally, a supermajority of Americans feel sympathy toward all immigrants, both documented and undocumented. And over the last two decades, public opposition to immigration has dropped dramatically and remains historically low compared to the early 1990s, even as the number of undocumented immigrants has fallen to historic lows. Even among Latinos, there has a sea change in opinion about immigration: in 2002 around half felt there were too many Latino immigrants, while now around half think there are just the right amount. So the public isn’t necessarily being led by the nose about a nativist crackdown.
But other public sentiment polls suggest that the White House’s sharply negative rhetoric toward immigrants is having an effect. In mid-2018, Gallup reported a sharp increase in the number of Americans who said immigration was the top problem facing the country, and this number has held steady for over a year. It appears to be a reaction to an entirely invented crisis: for fiscal year 2017, the last year for which there was data from the Obama administration, the C.B.P. reported border apprehensions had dropped to a 30-year low. A year later, after the Trump administration implemented its various anti-immigrant policies, apprehensions began to spike again but remained historically very low.
How could people perceive there to be a historic problem when the government’s own data show the opposite? Part of it is the president’s ability to shape the national agenda by inventing controversy. This isn’t just a rhetorical device — there is a genuine humanitarian crisis at the border, but it is the result of deliberate choices to harm immigrants, not any resource or policy gap that’s being exploited. In January of 2019, a leaked memo from the Department of Homeland Security shows that during a period of historically low migration, the federal government drafted a policy to specifically target families seeking asylum for mistreatment in the hopes that such mistreatment would deter other migrants. At the same time, in 2017 the administration closed down in-country asylum processing centers in Central America, which left a journey to the border as the only remaining option for people from the three primary sending countries seeking asylum (this is apart from the many structural “push” factors inspiring people to leave their homes, and the many “pull” factors that make the U.S. uniquely attractive as a destination). Lastly, the White House had declined to assign additional resources to fairly house migrants who await hearings or to expand the courts and personnel needed to adjudicate claims — rather, the president has focused on misusing the military and misappropriating funds to build a wall that won’t address the current backlog of people trapped in abusive conditions.
This gap in perceptions is something the administration is counting on: they assume most people won’t realize the crisis is entirely self-generated with the intent of imposing cruelty. And that is because the public can also exert influence on policy. When the first news broke of the family separation policy, the outcry was sustained and fierce — to the point of directly confronting officials in public, during their “off” hours. The massive amount of pressure exerted by people outraged by the sight of young children screaming for their parents, sleeping on concrete floors in cages, was amplified by friendly media coverage. The onslaught made it impossible for officials to get their own messages into the public, and after several months they relented… sort of (abusive policies and treatment have continued, but with less transparency).
More recently, efforts to expose the ongoing abuse of young children in immigration detention has had a harder time gaining traction. Outrage fatigue is real and it limits just how often the public can be mobilized — especially when it results in minimal or no change at the policy level (the immunity of the Trump administration to broad public opposition at most of its policies is surely an interesting dissertation topic). Plus, there has been a mass mobilization of disinformation onto social media to push misleading narratives about immigrants approaching the southern border — some of them are bots, many are essentially citizen propagandists motivated by profoundly bath faith about the issue. As a result, public comments on news about migrants is filled with hateful, dehumanizing speech about children in cages, as if their lack of an immigrant visa means they should be denied things like soap and toothbrushes. By employing FUD — fear, uncertainty, doubt — and the public’s gap in knowledge, the Trump administration hopes to get away with its dehumanizing abuse of the people in detention.
Surveys show that American attitudes toward immigration are more complex than simply pro- or con, no matter what the weird signal boosting of social media algorithms might have you believe. Americans tend to have two competing desires: a general sense that immigration should be reduced or kept low but also a strong sense that refugees should be admitted, families reunified, and skilled labor from abroad recruited. The combination of both instincts gives a broad leeway for what might be considered mainstream in immigration policy. As leaders respond to these different competing desires, immigration policy can shift dramatically while still being broadly within the realm of “supported by the public.”
The contradictory impulses of the public also provide an opportunity for activists to shift the narrative. Groups like RAICES have dramatically grown due to an influx of donations, and given their mission they have a lot of power to frame an agenda during media coverage — assuming a journalist can be convinced to stray outside official sources while reporting a story.
Seen in this light, then, there remains an opportunity to continue to constrain the worst abuses of the Trump administration through continued public outreach and sustained pressure on his officials who are enforcing them. A minority of the public believes that the abusive conditions at the detention camps justify calling them “concentration camps,” but recent Congressional delegations to the border, along with investigative journalism, has the potential to further shift opinion. We’ll explore how to do that in the next installment.