Immigration enforcement is a salient social and political issue in the contemporary United States. The extant evidence suggests that a key reason that many members of the public support harsh anti-immigration policies, such as building a border fence or denying emergency healthcare to illegal immigrants, is that they believe illegal immigrants hurt the U.S. by committing crimes, taking away jobs from Americans, and weakening American cultural values. At the same time, immigration enforcement is increasingly occurring through the criminal justice system, and involves police policies and practices that negatively impact both Latino citizens and non-citizens.
This merging of immigration control and criminal justice, or “crimmigration,” has increased racial profiling of Latinos, including U.S. citizens, and other abuses of police power. As crImmigration.com readers know well, crimmigration has also led to the removal of legally present noncitizens for minor offenses, such as traffic violations. Polls suggest that non-Latino Americans are not ignorant of this discrimination against Latinos or of the other negative consequences of crimmigration policies. Nonetheless, many citizens support crimmigration, or at least support the criminal justice policies and practices involved in this particular approach to immigration enforcement.
What factors explain the attractiveness of crimmigration policies as a “solution” to the widespread concern about immigration, despite their potential negative consequences for Latino citizens and legally present non-citizens? One theory is that immigration is largely an ethnicity-coded issue that allows for the veiled expression of broader anti-Latino sentiments. This perspective suggests that by opposing immigration and supporting harsh immigration policies, prejudiced citizens can act on their broader anxieties about the changing racial and ethnic composition of the U.S, without exposing their underlying racial and ethnic animus. Theoretically, holding anti-Latino sentiments should reduce opposition to discriminatory social controls such as police profiling by: 1) undermining empathy for criminal suspects who are members of racial or ethnic outgroups, and 2) fostering the perception that these policies will allow police to aggressively investigate and punish criminality, and even low-level deviance, by racial and ethnic others.
To test this theoretical possibility, I used data from a 2010 random telephone survey of U.S. adults (over 18-years-old) to examine whether support for aggressive policing is associated with the beliefs that Latinos 1) have too much political influence, and 2) take away jobs and other economic resources that should go to other citizens. The survey was conducted by Oppenheim Research with a sample of 961 Americans, and had a response rate of 35% (AAPOR RR4).
My results, explained in greater detail in “On the Social Foundations for Crimmigration: Latino Threat and Support for Expanded Police Powers” (Journal of Quantitative Criminology 2015), show that among Whites, fear that Latinos have too much political and economic influence is significantly related to support for police racial profiling and for making it easier for police to search individuals’ cars and homes. Stated differently, White Americans who feel more threatened by Latinos generally, not just by illegal immigrants, tend to be more likely to support aggressive policing.
An important implication of the results is that public perceptions of Latino threat may constitute an important social foundation for crimmigration. That is, by increasing public support for aggressive policing, anti-Latino sentiments may increase the political attractiveness and viability of crimmigration as an approach to immigration enforcement. One concern is that support for such policies may rise among citizens harboring anti-Latino attitudes as the U.S. population becomes more diverse in the coming decades. For example, several recent experiments have shown that exposing Whites to information about the U.S. Census Bureau’s projections of demographic change in the U.S. increase racial and ethnic prejudice and also influences their policy preferences. To the extent that these experiments accurately forecast the public’s reaction to increased ethnic diversity, the findings in the current study suggest there may be a concurrent increase in support for aggressive police practices, such as police profiling. In summary, then, there is a great need for continued research into the ways that both perceived immigrant threat and Latino threat shape attitudes toward the police, sentencing, and criminal sanctions.
Justin T. Pickett, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Criminal Justice at the State University of New York at Albany. He received his PhD in Criminology from Florida State University in 2011. Justin is the 2015 winner of the American Society of Criminology’s Ruth Shonle Cavan Young Scholar Award. His research interests center broadly on public opinion about crime and justice. He has recently published studies in Criminology, Sociological Methods and Research, Social Science Research, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, and Crime & Delinquency.
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