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White Americans disliked undocumented immigrants long before Trump

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Liberals and conservatives alike have condemned the Trump administration’s practice of separating and detaining families at the border. Calls for recognizing our shared humanity with immigrant families cover newsfeeds — including my own — and opinion pages.

Many have tried to put themselves in these immigrants’ shoes, proclaiming that they cannot imagine what they would do were their own children being ripped from their arms. And this isn’t merely a border issue; it’s pertinent to Missouri, Illinois and the Midwest. The Pew Research Center estimates that 25,000 undocumented individuals live in the St. Louis region. These individuals are our neighbors, friends and co-workers; many are parents, and some are separated from their families.

But are these calls for shared humanity likely to be heard — and shared — by white America? My own and other research suggest that the answer is no. Despite growing outrage over family separation and detention, many whites do not like undocumented immigrants and believe they have very little in common with them. And while it is tempting to blame President Donald Trump, these feelings existed before he was even a candidate.

In 2015, I conducted a survey experiment that presented hypothetical individuals whose race, citizenship status, job, English language ability and other characteristics were randomly assigned. I then asked a nationally representative sample of about 1,350 native-born white Americans to select preferred neighbors, indicate how interested they were in being friends, and rate how similar they thought these individuals were to themselves. This experimental design allowed me to compare how much each of these characteristics independently affect how white Americans think about immigrants.

Undocumented immigrant status elicited the most negative reactions — independent of race and other characteristics. All else equal, the hypothetical undocumented immigrants in my experiment were 29 percentage points less likely to be selected as neighbors compared to native-born, U.S. citizens. This difference was much greater than, for example, the 5 percentage point penalty for having a blue- vs. white-collar job.

Furthermore, respondents reported the lowest levels of interest in being friends with undocumented immigrants, and undocumented status had a profound effect on how people answered the question: How similar is this person to people like you? Even when undocumented immigrants were described as speaking fluent English, volunteering in their community, or having a white-collar job, they were still rated as dissimilar by white American respondents. White undocumented immigrants were penalized less than Latinos, blacks and Asians, but the undocumented disadvantage persisted regardless of an immigrant’s race. And Republicans and Democrats similarly perceived deep symbolic boundaries separating themselves from undocumented immigrants.

This past week, it seems that each additional picture of frightened mothers and children is eroding support for the Trump administration’s policy. Something about these heartbreaking images seems to get past these deep divisions. I did not include children in my experiment, and it may be that seeing signs of family bonds is what elicits sympathy and a sense of solidarity from the white American public. But I suspect that at least some of it has to do with the framing of these children as “innocent.”

If the children’s innocence is what helps us to see ourselves in their plight, it implies that their parents’ “guilt” is what justifies our treatment of them as separate and unequal. In fact, the perception is widespread that immigrants who cross our borders without authorization are criminals likely to commit further crimes, even though research proves it to be false. And many have long believed that criminals deserve to be incarcerated and to lose their rights to live with their own children.

If my suspicions are correct, even calls to end this vicious policy implicitly support the barrier between innocent children deserving of compassion and their guilty parents. They are not evidence of a true decline in the symbolic and literal boundaries separating the undocumented from white America. While some have long been calling attention to the detainment of individuals whose only crime is seeking economic opportunity and the chance to build a better life for themselves, the plight of these adults crossing without children has largely fallen on deaf ears.

President Trump and his administration are responsible for the current practices happening at the border. But the foundation for believing that it is morally acceptable to treat a group of people this way lies deep in the psyche of the white American public. Even as this heinous practice is now ending, we must all ask ourselves: Why did it take pictures of children in cages to get us to recognize our fellow human beings?

Ariela Schachter is assistant professor of sociology at Washington University.

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