Zombie Ideas and Moral Panics: Framing Immigrants as Criminal and Cultural Threats

November 2, 2016

This feature is part of an ongoing RSF blog series, Work in Progress, which highlights some of the research of our current class of Visiting Scholars.

In a letter criticizing the increase in immigration to the United States, a prominent politician wrote, “Few of their children in the country learn English....The signs in our streets have inscriptions in both languages.... They will soon so outnumber us that all the advantages we have will not be able to preserve our language, and even our government will become precarious.” This was not Republican candidate Donald Trump on the presidential campaign trail in 2016, but rather, Benjamin Franklin in 1753. (Franklin had also previously expressed hostility toward German immigrants in 1751.) As his statements show, anxieties about immigration—particularly those concerning the assimilation and character of incoming populations—have changed little even over the course of more than two centuries.

Visiting Scholar Rubén G. Rumbaut (UC Irvine)—a leading scholar on immigration and the co-author or co-editor of several RSF books including Legacies: The Story of the Immigrant Second Generation (2001), Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America (2001), and Immigration Research for a New Century (2003)—has studied the persistence of myths and stereotypes associated with immigrants, including the belief that immigrants are likely to be criminals. This claim in particular has been repeated as recently as this week, when presidential candidate Donald Trump called for increased border security and the deportation of undocumented immigrants, arguing that a Clinton administration would let “650 million people pour in in one week.” Earlier, in June 2015, he opened his campaign by saying of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.”

Rumbaut has conducted several studies using the decennial census, crime records, large-scale surveys, and other data sources that show that immigrants, including those who are undocumented, are in fact less likely to commit crimes than the native-born or to be incarcerated. Other research supported by the Russell Sage Foundation, including a 2015 National Academies of Sciences study chaired by Mary C. Waters (Harvard), has echoed this finding. In a new interview with the foundation, Rumbaut explained why centuries-old misconceptions about immigrants—which he calls “zombie ideas”—have continued to proliferate to this day.

Q. There are a number of negative perceptions about immigrants in the U.S. which you call “zombie ideas,” or ideas that refuse to die even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. These include the perception that immigrants commit more crimes than the native-born, and that certain new groups of immigrants refuse to assimilate. How far back can we trace these ideas, and how have they persisted and/or evolved throughout history?

Rumbaut: Both the idea that immigrants bring crime and the fear that they won’t assimilate go all the way back to the colonial era in this country—they’re neither new nor news. I have been calling these stereotypes “zombie ideas” to indicate that although they ought to be “dead” by all rights, they refuse to die, no matter how much evidence one deploys against them. The same anxieties and feelings of resentment that we see directed toward Mexican immigrants today, for example, were previously expressed toward German immigrants, then the Irish, and then Jewish and Italian immigrants during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Anti-immigrant sentiment also led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II.

Historically, when relatively small numbers of immigrants have arrived during periods of economic boom, they haven’t been perceived as threats. On the contrary, they’re often welcomed—in the 19th century and early 20th century, when cheap immigrant labor was needed to build infrastructure like railroads, canals, employers even sent recruiters to places like the interior of Mexico and to Scandinavian countries to get more workers to come to the U.S.

Also, when the immigrants who are arriving are professionals—such as doctors and engineers—who buy homes in the suburbs and work in engineering firms or at hospitals or universities, they tend to be “invisible,” and you’re not likely to hear in the media that they pose a threat. It’s when they’re poor, visibly different, and concentrated in certain areas of cities that news stories about their alleged criminal tendencies or failure to assimilate tend to appear. For example, when Vietnamese and Hmong refugees first came to the U.S. after the Vietnam War and settled in places like San Francisco and southern California, media stories warning pet owners to watch their dogs because the refugees would steal and eat them began to spring up in those areas.

People don’t often ask to see inconvertible evidence that these stereotypes are real. But even without the evidence to back them up, these ideas stick—and when they build up, and are demagogued by “moral entrepreneurs,” then you have a moral panic on your hands.

Q. We have perhaps most recently seen the return of these “zombie ideas” in the current presidential election. In particular, Republican candidate Donald Trump has insisted throughout his campaign that undocumented immigrants are likely to commit crimes against U.S. citizens. What does the actual social science research show about this claim?

By no means was Donald Trump the first one to popularize the notion that immigrants bring crime—he simply picked up a sentiment that has been circulating for a long time, and ratcheted up the scapegoating of targeted groups. In fact, this stereotype has formed the basis of a number of public policies over the last few decades. For instance, in 1994, long before Donald Trump rose to the top of the GOP ticket, Proposition 187, or the “Save Our State” initiative, passed in California in a landslide. This was a ballot measure designed to prevent “illegal aliens” from accessing public benefits, including education, and part of the rationale for it was the claim that immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, bring crime to the communities they live in. After it passed—although it was eventually found unconstitutional and was not implemented—Proposition 187 spawned multiple copycat laws and ordinances in a number of other states and localities, and influenced federal laws passed in 1996. And a decade later, even when President George W. Bush was trying to push comprehensive immigrant reform, he would repeat the line that “illegal” immigrants bring crime to our communities. This is just something that’s accepted at face value, as if everybody knows it, as “common sense.”

Yet, there have been multiple major studies commissioned by the federal government over the last century that have attempted to determine whether immigration leads to increased crime, and all of them have instead found lower levels of criminal involvement among the foreign-born and higher levels among their native born counterparts. That is also the conclusion of a plethora of empirical studies in the contemporary social science research literature.

In the period from the 1990s to 2012—a time when both legal and especially undocumented immigration reached historic highs—we can see that national crime rates declined, most notably in cities and regions of high immigrant concentration (including cities with large numbers of undocumented immigrants, such as Los Angeles, the border cities of San Diego and El Paso, as well as New York, Chicago, and Miami). From 1994 to 2006, both property crimes and violent crimes alike reached historic lows in the United States. (See figures below.)

In addition, we’ve seen a sharp increase in incarceration since the late 1970s, with the number of adults incarcerated in federal or state prisons or local jails in the United States quadrupling from just over 500,000 in 1980 to over 2.2 million in 2006. The vast majority of people in prisons are young men between eighteen and thirty-nine, overwhelmingly high school dropouts, and disproportionately black or Hispanic. Given that the undocumented immigrant population disproportionately fits this profile, it follows that those immigrants would be expected to have higher incarceration rates than natives. However, the incarceration rate of the native-born has consistently been higher than that of the foreign-born, and was five times the rate of the foreign-born at the time of the 2000 Census. Those findings apply to every immigrant nationality without exception, compared to their U.S.-born co-ethnics.

In short, we have consistent and compelling evidence that both crime and incarceration rates are lower among immigrant men than among the native-born.

Q. What accounts for the persistence of these zombie ideas over decades, and even centuries?

Such stereotypes may endure because they serve basic defensive social functions, maintain belief consistency, and preclude cognitive dissonance; stereotypes are rooted in emotion, and impervious to fact. A politics of fear, xenophobia, and hyperbolic moral indignation about “law breaking” by “illegal aliens” may help to rile and “rally the base,” especially in times of rapid demographic change and perceived social and economic threats. Furthermore, the belief that immigration leads to increased crime is not solely a U.S. phenomenon; similar trends are seen internationally as well. A 2002 national poll in Spain for example, found that 60% of Spanish citizens believed that immigrants were causing increases in the crime rate, while in a similar survey in Italy, 57% of Italians said the same. In each case those perceptions were heightened by a sensationalizing mass media.

These sentiments tend to surface particularly during political campaigns, and during periods of economic downturns, such as the Great Recession. Over the last few decades we’ve also seen the racial and ethnic makeup of the population shifting due to increased international migration from Latin America and Asia. When this happens, some segments of the dominant group start feeling that they’re being "invaded," or that they’re losing their status and group privilege to newcomers. This fear is then readily manipulated by demagogues and politicians, and amplified and sensationalized by the media. Immigrants are very easy to scapegoat; you can blame them for the problems of society with relative impunity, and they rarely get to fight back, at least in the first generation. But the citizen children of those immigrants may well remember the scapegoating of their parents, and seek validation and vindication over time. California today is a blue state, in large part because of the overreach of Republican nativists who sought to demonize Mexican and other immigrants in the 1990s. Trump will likely lose in California by 20 points next week.

Further Reading:


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