The Impact of Language and Race on Native-Born American Attitudes Toward the Foreign Born

Awarded Scholars:
Daniel Hopkins, Georgetown University
Project Date:
Jun 2010
Award Amount:
Project Programs:

Since 2006, the last time Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, state and local authorities have increasingly taken immigration law and enforcement into their own hands. While these new regulations cover a broad spectrum of immigration reform, many are notable for their anti-immigrant leanings, including laws banning landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants and “English-only” ordinances. Previously, most social science research on anti-immigrant attitudes focused on the hypothesis that these negative perspectives stem from competition between the native-born and immigrants for increasingly scarce resources. More recently, research has established that anti-immigrant rhetoric increasingly focuses on the loss of community identity that long-term residents fear will be brought about by increased immigration, as opposed to the loss of jobs or other material resources. However, research has yet to explore in depth why immigrant culture seems particularly threatening to native-born Americans. 

Political scientist Daniel Hopkins (Georgetown University) will conduct a survey experiment to test which sources of cultural distinction have a particular impact on Americans’ attitudes towards immigrants. Because the literature suggests that both skin tone and language are two major catalysts of anti-immigrant sentiment, the experiment will compare attitudes towards immigration policies when the respondents have been primed to think of immigrants as:  (1) speaking fluent English, accented English, or Spanish and (2) light-skinned versus dark-skinned. The experiment will show a nationally representative sample of 2,000 people a video clip of an actual news story (in a modified version) describing a recent immigration policy proposal. The clip will include a brief interview with an immigrant where skin color and language are varied.  The clip will be followed by a short survey that will include questions about politics more generally and about immigration policy in particular. To test for the potential role of legal status, the Hopkins will also embed an additional experiment within the questions asked after the video. One third of all the respondents will be randomly assigned to reply to questions on jobs, crime, and taxes with regard to immigrants in general. A second group of respondents will answer those questions for “illegal immigrants,” while a third group will answer the questions for “legal immigrants.” In this way, Hopkins expects to be able to show how the impact of race/skin color and Spanish-language use intersect with considerations about immigrants’ legal status. The project focuses on Latino immigrants because of their numerical prominence in the population and their significant variation in racial background.

This innovative survey experiment is designed to shed light on the question of what it is about contemporary immigration that generates significant discomfort among the native-born and, in particular, among native-born whites. It uses individual-level data to help us better understand how views about immigration shift as perceptions about who is an immigrant come into play.


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