ST. LOUIS — A new study by researchers at Washington University found that many white Americans often assume low-status immigrants are in the country illegally.

The authors suggest the mindset may only be strengthened by political sentiment targeting undocumented immigrants from Republicans and President Donald Trump.

“Our study demonstrates that the white American public has these shared, often factually incorrect, stereotypes about who undocumented immigrants are,” says study co-author Ariela Schachter, an assistant professor of sociology at the university, in a release. “And this is dangerous because individuals who fit this ‘profile’ likely face additional poor treatment and discrimination because of suspicions of their illegality, regardless of their actual documentation.”

The study found that people from certain countries appear to attract the most unwarranted suspicion among white Americans. Those with Mexican origin was significantly more affected, followed by those from Syria, India, and Italy as the next-most suspicious countries.

Researchers say that this mindset can lead many legal immigrants or actual citizens to become targeted by law enforcement or face discrimination when it comes to getting a job or finding housing. Some may even find themselves victims of hate crimes or harassment by strangers.

“There have actually been a number of recent incidents in which legal immigrants and even U.S. born Americans are confronted by immigration authorities about their status. So these judgments seem to be based on social stereotypes. Our goal was to systematically uncover them,” explains study co-author René D. Flores, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago.

For the study, researchers recruited 1,500 non-Hispanic white adult Americans to guess whether a hypothetical immigrant was living in the U.S. illegally based on the reading of a fictional biography of the immigrant. Participants were given 10 random sketches that included information such as country of origin, gender, criminal records, education level, and languages spoken, among other variables that often play into stereotypes.

The authors measured how much these traits played into a participant’s opinion and which ones weighed the heaviest for them. According to Schachter, knowing an immigrant’s country of origin was all that many participants needed to believe an immigrant was here illegally. But a criminal background was especially damning.

“Saying an immigrant committed a crime had a larger impact on suspicions of illegality than saying they were, say, Mexican,”  notes Schachter. “This is true for both white Democrats and white Republicans. There’s a clear implication that the Trump administration’s rhetoric on immigrant criminality is driving these beliefs, which, again, are not based in reality. In fact, other research finds that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.”

Participants rarely suspected immigrants from most Asian and European countries to be illegal, even though people from those countries make up 20 percent of the total undocumented immigrant population in the US. But perhaps the most surprising finding was that participants, whether Democrat or Republican, often jump to the same conclusions about one’s status, except when an opinion hinged on the receipt of government benefits.

Surprisingly, the study found that white Republicans and white Democrats jump to many of the same conclusions about the legal status of hypothetical immigrants — except when it comes to the receipt of government benefits.

“These findings reveal a new source of ethnic-based inequalities — ‘social illegality’ — that may potentially increase law enforcement scrutiny and influence the decisions of hiring managers, landlords, teachers, and other members of the public,” the authors write.

The full study was published September 14, 2018 in the American Sociological Review.

About Ben Renner

Writer, editor, curator, and social media manager based in Denver, Colorado. View my writing at

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