What Triggers Public Opposition to Immigration? Anxiety, Group Cues, and Immigration Threat


  • Data collection for this article was made possible by Time-sharing Experiments for the Social Sciences (TESS) and grants from the Howard R. Marsh Center for the Study of Journalistic Performance and the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. Antoine Banks, Andrea Benjamin, and Eric Groenendyk provided excellent research assistance. For helpful comments on this research at various stages, we thank Jake Bowers, Nancy Burns, Jamie Druckman, Zachary Elkins, Stanley Feldman, Rob Franzese, Marty Gilens, Don Green, Greg Huber, Leonie Huddy, Don Kinder, John Lapinski, Skip Lupia, George Marcus, David Mayhew, Tali Mendelberg, Joanne Miller, Ken Scheve, John Sweeney, Cara Wong, and anonymous reviewers, as well as audiences and discussants at MPSA and APSA annual meetings, Dartmouth College, the University of Michigan, New York University, Princeton University, and Yale University.

Ted Brader is associate professor of political science, University of Michigan, Center for Political Studies, 4242 ISR, 426 Thompson Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1248 (tbrader@umich.edu). Nicholas A. Valentino is Mike Hogg professor of community affairs, University of Texas at Austin, Department of Government, 1 University Station A1800, Austin, TX 78712-0119 (nvalenti@austin.utexas.edu). Elizabeth Suhay is a doctoral candidate in political science, University of Michigan, Department of Political Science, 5700 Haven Hall, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1045 (suhay@umich.edu).


We examine whether and how elite discourse shapes mass opinion and action on immigration policy. One popular but untested suspicion is that reactions to news about the costs of immigration depend upon who the immigrants are. We confirm this suspicion in a nationally representative experiment: news about the costs of immigration boosts white opposition far more when Latino immigrants, rather than European immigrants, are featured. We find these group cues influence opinion and political action by triggering emotions—in particular, anxiety—not simply by changing beliefs about the severity of the immigration problem. A second experiment replicates these findings but also confirms their sensitivity to the stereotypic consistency of group cues and their context. While these results echo recent insights about the power of anxiety, they also suggest the public is susceptible to error and manipulation when group cues trigger anxiety independently of the actual threat posed by the group.