Photo of a protest sign that reads, “ningún ser humano es ilegal” or no human being is illegal. Photo by Fibonacci Blue, Flickr CC

Recent politics on immigration reflect understandings of citizenship and ideas of what types of groups “belong” in American society. Even if immigrants have legal residency status, they may still be perceived as “illegal.” These perceptions of illegality are shaped by an individual’s ethnicity, language, economic status, and a number of cultural factors. Recent research by René D. Flores and Ariela Schachter identifies factors affecting perceptions of illegal status.

The study used survey data from 1,515 non-Hispanic white respondents across the nation. They reviewed hypothetical profiles of immigrants that included traits such as the region or length of time in a country, type of employment, national origin, education level, criminal history, language abilities, and use of government services. Respondents then rated whether the profiles were of documented or undocumented immigrants. Some of the most salient traits that influenced perceptions of legality/illegality included:

  • National Origin. In comparison to 16 other national groups, Mexicans, Salvadorans, and Syrians were most likely to be perceived as illegal; Europeans and Asians drew the least amount of suspicion.
  • Criminal Background. Individuals with criminal backgrounds were more likely to be perceived as illegal, especially in cases of violent crime like murder or sexual assault.
  • Locality. The localities of the immigrants in different scenarios — such as if they were applying to a respondent’s place of work or walking in her/his neighborhood — affected the likelihood a respondent would report an immigrant to the police to investigate their legal status.
  • Receiving Government Benefits. Whether or not respondents perceived a profile including “receiving government benefits” as undocumented varied by political party. For Republican respondents, suspicions grew when the individuals in question were receiving benefits, whereas with Democrats this had the opposite effect.

This study links current political debates and discourse to perceptions of illegality. Some of its findings echo current Republican rhetoric that labels undocumented immigrants as heinous criminals or abusers of federal government benefits. How we perceive immigrants in different social spaces affects our treatment of them, and the likelihood of branding them as criminal, cultural, economic, or social threats. For immigrants, in other words, these perceptions have real consequences and outcomes.