Friday, January 22, 2021

Empirical evidence that words matter: Biden proposal to update INA terms

This week the Biden administration proposed a Citizenship Act of 2021 (KitJ blogged here) that would, among other changes, replace the term “illegal alien” with “noncitizen” in the Immigration and Nationality Act. 

Many immigration scholars and supporters have long chafed at the INA's terminology. Empirical evidence supports their instincts that words matter: labels impact institutional and decisions and societal thinking. Julian M. Rucker, Mary C. Murphy, and Victor D. Quintanilla published an empirical paper (The immigrant labeling effect: the role of imimgrant group labels in prejudice against noncitizens, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations (2019)) investigating how prejudice, punitive behavioral intentions, and support for punitive immigration policies shift when immigrant labels included “illegal alien” vs. “noncitizen.”

The paper abstract reads:

Five experiments (N = 2,251) and a meta-analysis examine how group labels shape Americans’ levels of prejudice, behavioral intentions, and policy preferences toward immigrants living in the US without authorization. These studies extend research documenting how the perceived negativity of group labels (e.g., those describing gay people) affects people’s downstream attitudes. To this end, Study 1 examines the perceived negativity of the five most commonly used labels to describe unauthorized immigrants. Study 2 found that relatively negative (vs. neutral) labels (e.g., illegal aliens vs. noncitizens) engendered more prejudice, punitive behavioral intentions, and greater support for punitive policies. Study 3 replicates these effects and examines the role of familiarity. People who personally knew members of the group were more positive towards them overall, but were nevertheless susceptible to the labels’ influence. Studies 4 and 5 provide additional replications and explore prejudice as a mediator of behavioral intentions and policy preferences.


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