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Who Does Not Like Illegal Immigrants? And Why?

I examine several reasons for hostilities toward illegal immigrants.

The Trump administration’s practice of separating children from migrant families entering the United States violates their rights and international law, the United Nations human rights office said on Tuesday, urging an immediate halt to the practice. (New York Times, June 5, 2018)

According to the same article, the administration had recently announced a “zero tolerance” policy for people illegally crossing the border.

What is behind all these policies? What is it about illegal immigrants that many dislike so much?

Let me start with an incident that happened over 20 years ago and garnered significant media attention.

In 1996, a helicopter news crew videotaped two sheriff’s deputies in California clubbing two unarmed Mexicans. The incident had occurred right after a high-speed chase; the Mexicans were suspected illegal immigrants.

While many viewers considered the actions of the officers to have been needless and cruel, some felt that these actions were justified because the Mexicans had entered US illegally.


In a research study on the predictors of attitudes towards illegal Latino immigrants, conducted on a sample of college students in California, Cowan and colleagues used the description of the above incident and asked participants questions about the appropriateness of how the Mexicans had behaved and how the police had handled the situation.1

Another measure used also examined people’s stereotypes about illegal immigrants. The measure contained a list of adjective pairs, such as clean/dirty, hard working/freeloading, healthy/disease ridden, law abiding/criminal, etc.

The results of the study indicated that people’s negative attitudes and views, including beliefs that the beatings were justified, were best explained by negative stereotypes about illegal immigrants.

In other words, a positive view of illegal immigrants (e.g., as hardworking), would have been inconsistent with the opinion that illegal immigrants should be denied basic human rights.

Other reasons?

Aside from stereotypes, why else do some people feel animosity toward illegal immigrants? Espenshade and Calhoun have tested five hypotheses:

1. The labor market competition hypothesis suggests that people with the lowest socioeconomic standing feel most threatened by illegal aliens and thus have the most unfavorable opinion of them.

2. The cultural affinity hypothesis predicts that the people whose cultural background is most different from the newcomers are most likely to dislike them.

3. The education hypothesis proposes that strong negative attitudes toward migrants are associated with lower levels of education.

4. The cost-benefit hypothesis links negative opinions of undocumented immigrants with beliefs about how these migrants might negatively affect one’s material well-being (e.g., through raised taxes).

5. The symbolic politics hypothesis proposes that the antagonism toward newcomers is the result of the perception that immigrants and their way of life are potential threats to symbols of national identity (e.g., the English language).2

The researchers in this study found support for all five models (though less so for the first hypothesis).

They also found that the older participants had more negative attitudes; so did the ones who were worried that the number of non-English-speaking people will increase and negatively influence ethnic relationships.

The most hostile respondents, however, were those who assumed illegal aliens were more likely to live in poverty, depend on welfare, commit crimes, try not hard enough to learn the English language, and remain a burden to taxpayers.

More positive attitudes towards illegal immigrants was associated with Hispanic origins, male gender, younger age, and especially, higher levels of education. The authors noted, “Some of the strongest associations in the data are with educational attainment….And the more education respondents possess, the less they appear to be concerned about potential problems associated with illegal immigration.”

Source: Free-Photos/Pixabay

Group narcissism?

Lyons and colleagues have proposed yet another explanation for hostility toward illegal migrants, a theory that is a combination of two factors, the first of which is in-group identification.3

In-group identity is the aspect of one’s identity that is associated with group membership. When the group is seen in a positive way, the individual experiences enhanced self-esteem. Therefore, people are motivated to differentiate their group from others in a positive way (e.g., to believe that we Americans make the best cars in the world).

The original theory, by Henri Tajfel, had suggested that the motivated belief to see one’s group in positive terms is also associated with prejudice toward other groups.4 The empirical evidence for this prediction, however, appears weak.3

That is why the authors of the current study decided to combine national identity with a second factor called group narcissism, to see if the combination of the two would explain prejudice toward members of other groups.

Group-narcissism is narcissism that is associated with entitlement at the group level. Group-narcissism may encourage hostile attitudes toward others when the group’s superiority is threatened by outside forces.

Lyons and colleagues found that, as expected, when group narcissism was high, national in-group identification was associated with hostile attitudes toward illegal Latino immigrants.

The results can have serious implications, given that by 2050, the Latino population will likely represent a third of the US population while Whites will be in the minority; this change will be considered a deviation from the “traditional American customs and values”; these deviations are likely to be not only threatening identity-wise but also “disrespectful to the superior status” of Americans.

The fear that US is becoming a “brown” and “bilingual nation” is likely to increase hostility toward immigrants.


1. Cowan, G., Martinez, L., & Mendiola, S. (1997). Predictors of attitudes toward illegal Latino immigrants. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 19, 403-415.

2. Espenshade, T. J., & Calhoun, C. A. (1993). “An analysis of public opinion toward undocumented immigration.” Population Research and Policy Review 12, 189–224.

3. Lyons, P. A., Coursey, L. E., & Kenworthy, J. B. (2013). National identity and group narcissism as predictors of intergroup attitudes toward undocumented Latino immigrants in the United States. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences, 35, 323- 335.

4. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7-24). Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.