Latinos with strong U.S. identity are less immigration friendly

April 16, 2021

Latinx voters' political leanings are influenced strongly by their American identity. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

The degree to which Latinx voters prioritize their U.S.-American identity over their Latinx identity may have a significant influence on whether those voters support conservative immigration policies and Republican candidates, according to new research. 

In a study published March 31 in Public Opinion Quarterly, researchers examined 2012 and 2016 data from the American National Election Studies to quantify the effects of American identity prioritization on restrictive immigration policies, offering insight into why a significant minority of the Latinx community supports such policies and even go as far as to express hostility toward immigrants. 

The study points to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey that found 25% of Latinx people believe there are too many immigrants living in America, 19% of Latinx people support building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and 10% of Latinx people would oppose granting legal status to "Dreamers" — undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children and therefore qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

"What drew me to this research was that my parents came from Brazil," Flavio Hickel Jr., lead author of the paper and an assistant professor at Washington College, told The Academic Times. "My folks immigrated from Brazil, and most of my family are Brazilian immigrants. And I'm a white-passing Latino, so it does create a lot of identity conflicts."

Hickel said he has family members who supported former President Donald Trump, and he wanted to understand why they were so pro-Trump, when Trump himself is openly anti-Latinx and anti-immigrant.

"The hunch I had just talking to them was that these were people that were saying that being American is more important than being Latino or being an immigrant, and that there was something different about them compared to immigrants," he said. "And that seemed to be motivating a lot of it — that's what motivated the research."

The American National Election Studies are an academically run set of national surveys of voters in the United States, conducted before and after every election in order to produce high-quality data on voting, public opinion and political participation. For their study, the researchers used ANES data and refined the sample to yield a final sample size of 1,009 respondents in 2012 and 450 respondents in 2016, which were those respondents who self-reported their race or ethnicity as Hispanic in those years. 

The ANES survey included these two identity questions: "How important is being American to your identity?" and "How important is being Hispanic to your identity?" 

Respondents could answer based on a 5-point scale, ranging from "not at all important" and to "extremely important." 

The researchers created their key explanatory variable using this data, constructing a ratio measure of identity prioritization by subtracting the strength of Latinx identity from the strength of U.S.-American identity. 

While a sizable share of respondents gave the same response to both identifiers — 33.5% in 2012 and 48.6% in 2016 — the researchers found that 48.5% of 2012 respondents and 31.5% of 2016 respondents actually prioritized a U.S.-American identity over their Latinx identity. A smaller number of respondents prioritized a Latinx identity over a U.S.-American identity — 18.1% of respondents in 2012 and 19.9% of respondents in 2016. 

The study did not make a hypothesis about respondents who equally valued both identities, "because there were just a lot of unknowns," according to Hickel, leaving unresolved questions about that group open for future research. Instead, the study focused on respondents who prioritized one identity over the other. 

The ANES surveys included questions that gauged respondents' feelings toward "illegal immigrants" and presidential candidates Mitt Romney, who ran in 2012, and Trump, who ran in 2016. These "feeling thermometer" questions scaled from zero to 100, with higher numbers indicating warmth and favorability. 

Moreover, the researchers constructed two additional variables to capture respondents' views toward restrictive immigration policy proposals by making use of data provided by the ANES survey.

In both years, the surveys included an immigration policy question where respondents could respond: "0 – Make all unauthorized immigrants felons and send them back to their home country, 1 – have a guest worker program in order to work, 2 – allow [unauthorized immigrants] to remain and eventually qualify for US citizenship if they meet certain requirements and pay penalties, or 3 – allow them to remain and eventually qualify for US citizenship without penalties."

The 2016 survey also captured respondents' views on Trump's proposal to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. 

Across both years of the surveys, the researchers found that prioritization of American identity over Latinx identity marked a shift toward restrictive immigrant policies and GOP presidential candidates and decreased favorability toward unauthorized immigrants. 

For policy views, the researchers found that for each unit change in identity prioritization from Latinx to U.S.-American, support for more liberal immigration policy options dropped by 0.09 points on the 0-3 scale. In 2016, respondents who highly prioritized a Latinx identity had an expected score of about 2.4 on the 0-3 immigration policy scale, denoting more liberal views, while respondents who highly prioritized a U.S.-American identity had an expected score of about 1.6 on the same scale, denoting more restrictive views. 

For views toward unauthorized immigrants, the researchers found that for each unit change on the identity prioritization measure, a reduction of 5 to 6.5 points in favorability toward unauthorized immigrants occurred. 

Graphically depicting this relationship, the researchers showed that on a zero to 100 scale, with higher values denoting warmth and favorability, "respondents who highly prioritize their Latinx identity rate 'illegal immigrants' around 80 points on the 0-100 scale, whereas high American identifiers rate 'illegal immigrants' around 40 points." 

The researchers also found that prioritizing U.S.-American identity over a Latinx identity correlated with more favorable ratings for Mitt Romney, but this observed correlation was not as large compared with views on policy and unauthorized workers. However, the effect of American identity prioritization on GOP candidate approval had nearly double the effect for Donald Trump compared with Romney. 

The researchers found that for each unit change in identity prioritization, there was a 2.9 to 6.4 points increase in support for Trump on a 0-100 scale, with higher values denoting favorability. "High Latinx identifiers give Trump a score between about 10-15 points on the 0-100 scale, whereas high American identifiers rate Trump around 40 on the same scale," the researchers wrote. 

In general, 2016 survey respondents were opposed to the border wall, but those with high American identifiers fall just above 0 on a -3 to +3 scale, with higher values denoting support — indicating that Latinx respondents with higher American identifiers were more or less ambivalent toward the wall. In contrast, those with high Latinx identifiers had a predicted value of -3, the lowest value possible on the scale, corresponding to a "great deal" of opposition. 

Hickel cautioned, though, that these findings are only associations or correlations between American or Latinx identifiers and policy and immigration views; the causality between the variables remains inconclusive. Nonetheless, the researchers theorized, based on social identity literature, "that such attitudes likely represent an individual social mobility strategy in which members of a social group attempt to 'pass' as a member of a higher status group."

"Prioritizing a U.S. American identity, supporting the Republican Party, and expressing hostility towards the interests of undocumented immigrants are a means of distinguishing themselves from a social group that has become increasingly associated with negative stereotypes," the researchers wrote. "In contrast, those who are unwilling or unable to make this transition are likely pursuing a collective social mobility strategy ... whereby they attempt to enhance their individual status by elevating that of the entire social group."

Hickel said these findings mean that what political analysts have been saying recently is true: "Latinos are not a monolithic group, and their vote should not be taken for granted."

"In response to marginalized status, a lot of people do sort of see that they can benefit themselves as an individual at the expense of the group," he said, though he added that he is not making a value judgment about whether this is the right or appropriate strategy.

"But if we do aim to inspire sort of unity among the Latino community to battle against hierarchies and inequalities that exist," Hickel said, "activists and organizers need to recognize that this is a phenomenon and think about how we can combat that to build more solidarity and unity for advancing the plight of people suffering under marginalization."

The study "The Role of Identity Prioritization: Why Some Latinx Support Restrictionist Immigration Policies and Candidates, published March 31 in Public Opinion Quarterly, was co-authored by Flavio R. Hickel Jr., Washington College; Rudy Alamillo, Western Washington University; Kassra AR Oskooii, University of Delaware; and Loren Collingwood, University of New Mexico.

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