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Crisis Migrants Are Not a Threat

People crossing our border are running for their lives, not invading the U.S.

Key points

  • The number of people crossing the U.S./Mexico border is at its highest point in history.
  • Integrated threat theory proposes two primary types of threats that people tend to perceive from immigration–realistic and symbolic threats.
  • Some people are threatened by the increasing presence of crisis-driven migrants, and these threats can be weaponized by political parties.

In the summer of 2014, thousands of undocumented Central American children and adolescents crossed the U.S./Mexico border. Many of them fled rampant gang violence in their home countries, and they and their families believed that embarking on a perilous and uncertain journey to the U.S. was the only way to survive.

Some Americans were sympathetic, but others were far less so–even going so far as to call these young people "invaders" and "aliens." One conservative commentator said on his radio show that "these countries should take care of their own children."

Since early 2021, people have been crossing the U.S./Mexico border in much larger numbers. Spurred by wars, invasions, national collapses, and the economic effects of COVID-19 lockdowns in their home countries, millions of people have flocked to the U.S. border. Although many of these people are from Mexico and Central America, many others are not (Gramlich & Scheller, 2021). Haitians, Venezuelans, and Ukrainians–all of whom are fleeing countries that are in crisis–have been among the more prominent groups that have crossed the border in the past year and a half.

Again, although some Americans have been receptive to these people, many others have expressed outrage that these migrants are allowed to cross into the United States. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has pledged to finish building the border wall that former President Donald Trump started, and Abbott has threatened to detain migrants himself if the federal government does not do so (Abbott, 2022). His view of the people crossing the border is clearly that they are invading our country and that this invasion must be stopped.

But why do some people view crisis migrants as people running for their lives, whereas others view them as invaders? Rozo and Vargas (2021) examined voting behavior in Colombia and found that political parties there often frame Venezuelan mass migration as a threat so that they can convince voters to support parties and policies that will reduce this threat. Woods and Arthur (2017) argued that Trump did much the same thing in the United States, focusing on Mexican and Central American migration.

Integrated threat theory (Stephan et al., 2009) proposes two primary types of threats that people tend to perceive from immigration–realistic threats and symbolic threats. Realistic threats refer to competition for jobs, housing, and other resources. Symbolic threats refer to fears that the identity of one's nation is being lost. Symbolic threats are far more powerful and can be weaponized more easily. For example, Patrick Buchanan (2011) warned that the Anglo-Protestant heritage on which the U.S. was founded is in danger because of uncontrolled Latin American and Asian immigration. Douglas Murray (2018) warned that the Christian heritage of Europe is being destroyed by uncontrolled Muslim immigration.

Social psychology teaches us that perceived threats are often followed by attempts to defend against those threats (Gregg et al., 2011). As a result, people who feel threatened by undocumented migration are likely to support defensive measures to reduce or stop this migration–such as building a border wall, mass deportation of undocumented people, or prosecuting people who attempt to cross the border illegally.

We cannot communicate effectively with people who hold these views unless we understand their origins and what motivates people to endorse them. Research conducted by my Ph.D. student, Maria Duque (currently under review), indicates that people who don't have much contact with immigrants or whose contact with immigrants has been superficial or aversive are likely to oppose immigration and to support decreasing the number of people allowed into the country.

Wait a minute, many of my conservative friends and family members say. There is a difference between legal immigrants and "illegal aliens." Why can't these people do it the right way? Why can't they wait in line just like everyone else? After all, my ancestors (presumably Europeans who came on steamships in the 19th and 20th centuries) didn't just sneak across the border!

First, the demarcation between "legal" and "illegal" immigration was not established until the second half of the 20th century. Prior to that time, there was no such thing as illegal immigration. People who arrived in the 19th and early 20th centuries generally passed through Ellis Island, where they were processed. Air travel had not yet been invented, so there weren't many other ways to get to the U.S. from other parts of the world.

Second, people fleeing wars, invasions, and dictatorial governments do not have the luxury of applying for a visa and waiting months or years for their request to be processed. The U.S. has been taking in people fleeing crises and disasters for more than 200 years.

Because the difference between crisis migrants and invaders is one of perspective, our task is to gently challenge the perception of threat that some people hold. What is the fear that is behind the threat perception? Who has convinced you that we are under threat? Would it be possible to view this situation in a different way? What if you were one of those people who had to run for your life? How would you want to be treated?

In sum, we are–and have always been–a nation of immigrants. People are desperate to get into the United States because of our country's freedoms, rights, and opportunities. It is an honor–not a threat–that so many people want to come here. Let us help them to do so, and let's help our fellow citizens to understand what these people are running from.

References

Abbott, G. (2022). Border crisis update. Retrieved from https://www.borderwall.texas.gov/.

Buchanan, P. J. (2011). State of emergency: The third world invasion and conquest of America. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gramlich, J., & Scheller, A. (2021). What's happening at the US/Mexico border in 7 charts. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/11/09/whats-happening-at-the….

Gregg, A. P., Sedikides, C., & Gebauer, J. E. (2011). Dynamics of identity: Between self-assessment and self-enhancement. In S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, & V. L. Vignoles, Handbook of identity theory and research (pp. 305-327). New York: Springer.

Murray, D. (2018). The strange death of Europe: Immigration, identity, Islam. London: Bloomsbury,

Rozo, S. V., & Vargas, J. F. (2021). Brothers or invaders? How crisis-driven migrants shape voting behavior. Journal of Development Economics, 150, Article 102636.

Stephan, W. G., Ybarra, O., Morrison, K. R. (2009). Intergroup threat theory. In T. D. Nelson (Ed.), Handbook of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. Psychology Press.

Woods, J., & Arthur, D. C. (2017), Debating immigration policy in the age of terrorism, politicization, and Trump. Lanham, MA: Lexington Books.

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