The immigration reform bill that the Senate passed has stalled in the House. As members of Congress head home to their districts over the recess, pundits speculate about whether August 2013 will reprise the heated town halls of 2009. The public is divided on the Senate’s bill, which included both a path to citizenship and increased border spending, with 55% of Democrats supporting it and 62% of Republicans opposed. Some proponents of immigration reform express renewed optimism, while others see reform prospects as doomed. Mark Kennedy, a former Republican member of Congress, argues that immigration will be won or lost over the August recess. In a policy area that is often surrounded by emotional rhetoric, the prospects for reform depend, in part, on the emotional tenor of the debate. A debate that generates anxiety tends to favors opponents of comprehensive immigration reform. Anxiety about immigration leads both Democrats and Republicans to trust the Republican Party to handle immigration and to support a more restrictive immigration policy.
As part of a forthcoming book on anxiety and politics, we conducted an experiment in which we showed people an anti-immigration advertisement modeled on California Governor Pete Wilson’s 1994 advertisements. The ad highlighted three main concerns about immigration: that immigrants take American jobs, that open borders bring crime and threaten national security, and that immigrants take healthcare, education, and welfare funding from Americans. Although every person heard the same message, we varied the music and visuals. One version of the ad had threatening visuals and scary music, while the other vision had neutral visuals and no music. We expected that the threatening music and images would increase respondents’ level of anxiety, and that is what happened.
Anxious people seek reassurance, and because the Republican Party is traditionally seen as stronger on immigration, anxiety drove citizens toward Republicans. After watching the ad with the threatening music and images, both Democrats and Republicans expressed more trust in the Republican Party to handle immigration, relative to the group that saw the other ad. Republicans also expressed less trust in both Obama and the Democratic Party.
When Americans are anxious about immigration, our research shows another consequence: that they also become more supportive of more punitive immigration policies, including making immigrants ineligible for public services as well as increased spending on border security.
What does this mean for supporters of comprehensive immigration reform? It will not be easy to change the fact that Republicans are seen as owning the issue, nor will it be easy to prevent opponents from trying to stoke anxieties about immigrants. Better options for supporters are to focus on the economic benefits, which could make for a less emotional debate, or to produce a different emotional narrative, perhaps one that focuses on the plight of some immigrants. Other research shows that evoking humanitarian concerns makes people more sympathetic to immigrants — and that these concerns can even override perceptions of threat.