In Transit: The Politics of Immigration


Ola Topczewska Spotlight, Commuter Rail Image.jpg

The findings are discouraging for those combating racism and discrimination against Hispanic Americans.

Last summer, I worked with Professor Ryan D. Enos in the Government Department through the Behavioral Laboratory on Social Science at Harvard (BLISS) on a project about racial threat and perceptions of immigration. Specifically, we wanted to see whether repeatedly exposing people living in predominantly racially White neighborhoods to phenotypically Hispanic people would affect their views on immigration policy and immigrants. The study was conducted as a field experiment. Native Spanish speakers were hired as confederates to travel along the MBTA Commuter Line along the same route for ten consecutive workdays. They were instructed to wait at certain stations to catch the train, thus making it seem like they had moved into the neighborhood. Commuters were surveyed using an online interface before and after exposure to determine their attitudes toward minorities, their political views, and their opinions on immigration. A link to the survey was distributed half a week before treatment began. Commuters who responded to the initial survey received a follow-up survey after exposure, allowing us to calculate a change score and reduce external variation.

We had hypothesized that exposure to the native Spanish speakers would shift commuters’ views in a conservative direction, and the findings were far from optimistic. We found that this process of minimal repeated exposure to Hispanic commuters decreased the average favorability that survey respondents felt toward immigrants at a significant level. Respondents became more conservative in their responses, and more likely to report that their community was changing in a negative direction. Interestingly, we did find that the people who participated in the second survey reported that their community was less diverse after treatment than they did prior to it. One possible explanation is that while respondents may have thought of diversity along a spectrum of other variables, such as income, religion, and political preferences, the exposure to Hispanic individuals made them think of diversity along racial terms, and thus/therefore realize how racially homogeneous their communities are. That is to say, they noticed that there were two non-white people on the platform, possibly prompting them to recognize how racially homogeneous their community really is.

Though not uplifting, the finding that the treatment made people have more conservative opinions about immigration may have implications for contemporary America, especially given demographic estimates that people of Hispanic origin will make up increasing percentages of the American population over the next decade. The findings are discouraging for those combating racism and discrimination against Hispanic Americans. As more Hispanic Americans and immigrants settle in neighborhoods that were once predominantly white, these finding suggest that they will nevertheless face discrimination on the basis of their race. That being said, it is important not to make unwarranted generalizations on the basis of the findings. The results do not mean, for instance, that people in these communities will behave in a certain way, only that their perceptions and political preferences may be affected. Moreover, the findings also provide no guidance on the question of how respondents might react to extended contact with a person of Hispanic background, such as that which may occur at school or in the workplace. It may be, for instance, that while cursory anonymous contact with Hispanics on a train platform fosters negative attitudes toward immigration, extended contact with a Hispanic person encourages positive attitudes by showing people, through sustained interactions, the ways in which stereotypes of Hispanics do not hold true.

The writer can be reached at