Xenophobic Rhetoric and Its Political Effects on Latinos

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Principal investigator:

Efren Perez

Vanderbilt University

Email: efren.o.perez@vanderbilt.edu

Homepage: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/efrenperez/

Sample size: 1203

Field period: 5/20/2011-10/6/2011


How does xenophobic rhetoric affect immigrants and their co-ethnics? This project examines this question in the context of Latino political behavior. It argues that xenophobic rhetoric makes Latinos more receptive to a nationalist brand of politics which is normally bereft of wide support. I claim that by focusing on illegal immigrants—a marginalized Latino subgroup—xenophobic discourse stigmatizes Latino identity. Thus, many Latinos counter this identity threat by supporting nationalist politics that aggressively privilege their group over others. This means a community which generally shows signs of political and cultural incorporation can, under certain political conditions, display many of the vices attending a heightened sense of ingroup attachment, including outgroup derogation and a weaker political will to compromise.


(H1) xenophobic rhetoric will induce support for nationalist politics, as evidenced by greater levels of ethnocentrism, lower levels of political trust, and greater support for policies that enable Latinos to actively maintain their language and culture.

(H2) High-identifying Latinos will be acutely sensitive to xenophobic rhetoric, and consequently, more nationalistic.

(H3) Acculturation will weaken Latinos’ nationalist response to xenophobic rhetoric. Accordingly, we should observe the strongest nationalist response among those individuals exposed to xenophobic rhetoric, who identify highly as Latinos, and who are less acculturated.

Experimental Manipulations

Respondents were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: 1) a control condition, where no information is communicated; 2) a condition cueing illegal immigrants, without xenophobia; and 3) a condition cueing illegal immigrants, with xenophobic remarks.

The treatments consist of a press statement attributed to an unidentified member of Congress. The non-xenophobic treatment focuses attention on illegal immigrants without alleging any negative qualities about them. The xenophobic treatment directs attention to illegal immigrants while alleging negative qualities about them (e.g., threatening American culture).


1) Ethnocentrism
2) Political trust
3) Nationalist policy scale
4) Likelihood of registering and voting (only for eligible but unregistered voters)

Summary of Results

1) In the wake of xenophobic rhetoric, Latinos with stronger levels of ethnic identity become more ethnocentric, less politically trusting, and more supportive of nationalist policy. These effects dissipate across levels of acculturation, with first- and second-generation Latinos generally displaying stronger effects than their third-generation counterparts.

2) Focusing on eligible but unregistered Latino voters, I find that in light of xenophobic rhetoric, individuals who strongly identify as Latinos are more likely to report they will register and vote in a subsequent presidential election. This interplay between identity and xenophobic rhetoric is absent in the remaining conditions. Moreover, this dynamic is not explained by highly partisan Latinos reacting to elite rhetoric about illegal immigration.


"Self-Fulfilled Prophecy: Xenophobic Rhetoric and Its Political Effects on Latinos" (under review)

"Boomerang: How Elite Discourse Politicizes Racial and Ethnic Identities" (working paper)