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Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

2012 November 10
by Eric Horowitz

When it comes to explaining why the immigration status quo is bad for Americans there’s a tendency for people to get lost in the weeds of arguments about jobs and growth. That’s not to say that the economic arguments for more-permeable borders aren’t the strongest ones, but there’s a simpler reason why the status quo is terrible. When you make people feel like they’re not a productive part of society they’re more likely to become an unproductive part of society.

Some new research that looks at how a hostile environment affects the mental health of Mexican-American youth helps illustrate this point:

Language hassles and discrimination emerged as significant, independent predictors of changes in symptoms for internalizing disorders, and language hassles was also a significant predictor of growth of externalizing symptoms. Our study confirms that these cultural experiences represent significant sources of stress for the growing population of Mexican American youth, and merit inclusion in examinations of the role of cultural stressors in the development of mental health difficulties for this population.

Having a hardline stance on immigration doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll personally treat immigrants poorly, but the mere presence of immigration as a polarizing political issue ensures that things like language hassles and discrimination will frequently occur in certain areas. These cultural stressors will worsen immigrant mental health outcomes, and that will make them less productive members of society. Thus, a legislative compromise on immigration will improve the contributions of immigrants by toning down the cultural animosity that can harm their mental health.

These findings dovetail nicely with other recent research that suggests anti-immigrant rhetoric can decrease the cognitive performance of immigrants by inducing stereotype threat. That is, when immigrants hear negative stereotypes about themselves, the increased anxiety about confirming those stereotypes leads to lower performance. The lesson is that from a psychological standpoint, anti-immigrant rhetoric can become a self-fulfilling prophecy because it can have real and negative effects on how immigrants function.

The are a lot of good reasons for increased immigration. It will lead to stronger economic growth in America and be a boon for the global poor who are currently forbidden from pursuing a better life in the U.S. But it’s also important to keep in mind that freeing immigration from the fiery rhetoric that accompanies polarizing political issues will help immigrants already in America and improve the odds they’ll reach their potential.
Nair, R., White, R., Roosa, M., & Zeiders, K. (2012). Cultural Stressors and Mental Health Symptoms Among Mexican Americans: A Prospective Study Examining the Impact of the Family and Neighborhood Context Journal of Youth and Adolescence DOI: 10.1007/s10964-012-9834-z

Appel, M. (2012). Anti-Immigrant Propaganda by Radical Right Parties and the Intellectual Performance of Adolescents Political Psychology, 33 (4), 483-493 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2012.00902.x

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