On June 6, 2022, a caravan of over 6000 migrants, including many from Venezuela and Guatemala, embarked on a 1,270-mile journey from the southern tip of Mexico to the United States. News coverage of their journey has re-ignited fears about the types of immigrants entering the U.S. But Americans need not fear. In fact, our perceptions about undocumented immigrants are generally very wrong.
On average Republicans think that 22% of undocumented migrants entering the U.S. are associated with gang or criminal activity. Democrats think that 11% of undocumented migrants have criminal associations. Yet according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics, less than 1% of undocumented immigrants entering the U.S. are associated with gang or criminal activity. Likewise, Democrats and Republicans think that approximately 18% and 37%, respectively, of undocumented children entering the U.S. are being trafficked by adults who are not their parents to gain entry into the U.S. However, according to the DHS, less than 0.1% of children come over with adults who are not their own parents.
These extreme overestimations beg the question: Where do these biases come from?
One source is the media. Misinformation in the news about undocumented immigrants is rampant. For instance, the media overrepresents negative stories about immigrants in the U.S. This is in part because the demand for negative news is much higher than the demand for positive news. Therefore, we are more likely exposed to negative news stories about immigrants than positive ones.
Many of these negative news stories falsely accuse undocumented immigrants of entering the U.S. to exert criminal influence. This is statistically not true. In fact, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than their American-born counterparts are. Even in the current migrant caravan, the immigrants are fleeing from violence in their homelands and seeking asylum.
There is also a misperception that once the immigrants enter the U.S. they will steal jobs from Americans. However, these asylum-seekers are a vital part of the U.S. economy, oftentimes filling roles that are unable to be filled by citizens. Immigrants also pay more than $90 billion in taxes every year, making them an integral part to the growth of the U.S. economy.
Misinformation also lies in the language the media uses to talk about undocumented immigrants. Calling undocumented immigrants “illegal” is misleading, as it is legal to seek asylum in the U.S. In fact, to request asylum, the person must be physically in the U.S. or at one of its ports. Therefore, calling undocumented immigrants “illegal” contradicts the current legal processing of asylum immigrants in the U.S.
Another source is fearmongering by politicians. Fear is a powerful tactic that politicians have long used to persuade people to support their cause. One target of politicians’ fearmongering-tactic is undocumented immigrants. For instance, Representative Lauren Boebert recently posted on Twitter that “The DHS cannot account for 50,000 illegals released into America last year. There are 50k potential terrorists, killers, and other criminals. We have no clue who they are, we just know that our border is WIDE open to the world.” Likewise, Senator Ted Cruz tweeted “What do you call TWO MILLION illegal immigrants last year, if not Open Borders? Think any of them were carrying drugs?”
These baseless claims, among others, fuel fear and hate toward undocumented immigrants seeking asylum. It is also hardly a coincidence that these fearmongering tweets are more prevalent during election years.
How can we overcome our biases?
Finding accurate news stories about immigrants and immigration processes is easier than you might think. To receive accurate information about immigration, turn to nonpartisan news sources—such as the American Immigration Council—or nonpartisan fact-checking sources such as Factcheck.org or Snopes that fact-check information from other major media outlets. Likewise, organizations such as AllSides provide news articles from all different perspectives, which can shed light on how the same issue might be covered differently based on the political lean of the news source.
It is also important to recognize that Americans are not as divided on border policy as the media and politicians make it seem. For instance, when representative samples of American partisans are asked how much they favor or oppose open borders on a scale of 0 (completely closed borders) to 100 (completely open borders), Democrats and Republicans are 36-points apart. Yet when these partisans are asked how far apart they think Democrats and Republicans are on border control policies, they estimate 52-points. While a 36-point difference is still significant, it is not nearly as bad as presumed. Recognizing that we are not as far apart as we might think on our border policy positions also opens the door for more conversation and bipartisan collaboration on immigration reform.
Reducing our negative biases towards undocumented immigrants is possible. It starts with holding the media and politicians accountable for misleading information about undocumented immigrants and acknowledging that undocumented immigrants who seek asylum are here legally.
Samantha Moore-Berg is the Emile Bruneau Postdoctoral Researcher and the director of the Peace and Conflict Neuroscience Lab at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She investigates the drivers and consequences of intergroup conflict and develops interventions that directly combat intergroup conflict and systemic inequality.