The immigration debate got very personal for Latinos in California in 1994 when Proposition 187 passed, denying undocumented persons basic social services such as a public education. The justification for Prop 187 was to curb financial waste, not negative feelings toward Latinos. In the wake of Prop 187 UC Berkeley political scientist Jack Citrin and his colleagues (1997) put the political rhetoric of economic self-interest to the test. Using American National Election Study data they found that personal economic circumstances did little to influence one’s position on immigration. In contrast, they found that ideology and negative feelings toward Hispanics and Asians drove opposition to immigration.
This study, however, did not consider whether negative feelings toward white immigrants would also lead to a preference for less immigration. It could still be the fact that the American public dislikes immigration because they have a generalized animus toward all immigrants. To test this proposition, political scientists at the University of Michigan (Brader, Valentino, and Suhay 2008) conducted a study where survey respondents were asked about immigration in the context of a story that either featured José Sanchez or Nikolai Vandinsky. The researchers found that negative feelings about immigration grew when the immigrant group in question was Mexican rather than Russian.
The argument could still be made that opposition to immigration is related to a stigmatization of non-white immigrant groups in general and not Latinos in particular. To get at this question Nick Valentino and his colleagues at the University of Michigan looked at how evaluations of Asians, African-Americans and Latinos influenced opinion on immigration. Negative feelings toward Latinos had the largest effect on restrictive immigration preferences. In comparison, sentiments toward blacks and Asians did not have a significant role in whites’ immigration policy preferences.
Some time ago I was listening to a progressive radio station from Los Angeles, California (I think it was KPCC), the topic was immigration and specifically the Dream Act - I support the Dream Act despite reservations. Well one man called and said that the Dream Act was a great initiative and that his Scottish wife benefited from something similar when she first came to the United States of America. The problem for him is economical and period related. You see that was then and this is now. Therefore while it was fine for his immigrant Scottish wife to utilize public tax payer resources to better herself and in the process himself, the state of California isn’t in a position today to offer those “luxuries” to the undocumented. When pressed further to elucidate his hypocritical stance, he responded, “tough luck.”
Did I believe that he was racist towards Latin@s? Truthfully I did not or at least not explicitly racist. I bet he knew some great Latin@ people, probably including a nanny he referred to as mami or a few very close friends, but it’s tough to listen to such hypocrisy and excuse it as something other than the work of some subconscious form of racism. How could you deny an entire group of people the benefits you glowingly spoke about with regards to your wife? How could you do this and still demand complete assimilation while denying them another tool to assimilate? It didn’t make sense then and it doesn’t make sense now.
I think this is interesting to contrast with naturalization statistics. Even when controlled for factors that influence low citizenship levels such as high poverty and low education levels, Mexicans are much less likely to become citizens than other immigrants. By the early 2000s, the chances of Mexicans becoming citizens doubled from the rate it was in the 1990s. Even so, Mexican immigrants are still much less likely to become citizens than other immigrants.
Interestingly enough, Central American, South American, and Caribbean immigrants are more likely than Mexican immigrants to become citizens but less likely than other immigrant groups. South American and Caribbean immigrants are almost as likely as European immigrants to become citizens while Central American immigrants are not.