“RIP Civil Rights Legacy,” was one of the signs demonstrators carried as they rallied against HB 87, passed by the Georgia legislature last month. Short and dramatic, it was perfect placard material. But it also contained much to unpack about the bill and how we benefit from that legacy.
HB 87 provides new tools for law enforcement to handle the harboring and transporting of illegal immigrants. It also gives police the ability to identify illegal immigrants during the course of an investigation, and grants powers of civil action to the Attorney General to ensure compliance.
While the bill’s intended purpose is to crack down on illegal immigration, the psychological research suggests that it is likely to increase the use of stereotypes, prejudices and profiling toward those suspected of being illegal immigrants. Findings from this body of work maintain that while most people no longer consciously endorse stereotypes, many still harbor implicit (subconscious) biases about some racial or ethnic groups.
These biases are beliefs and feelings which harness stereotypes and prejudice even without intent or control. As such, people often utilize them in their perceptions and reactions to members of other groups automatically and with little conscious effort. When people feel threatened or under time pressure – as police officers often are – these automatic processes are even more influential.
This research speaks to the fact that implicit biases can have a careless and unparalleled impact on social policies. The great danger in HB 87 and other types of reforms like this is that they give social and legal cause to such biases. This in turn may actually worsen prejudicial practices.
The impact on the social and psychological life of both documented and undocumented immigrants can be profound. One need not look far to see the manifestations of discrimination and prejudice as they take the form of mental and physical health disparities for members of minority groups including immigrants.
Studies showed that Mexican women experienced frequent hostility and distress during the implementation of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. This distress was often due to the women’s feelings that society, with the implementation of reform, wanted them out of the country and perceived them as criminals. More recent research showed that feelings of exclusion based on race or immigrant status can lead to doubts about social acceptance.
Similar surveys of African American university students found that those who expected to be rejected and excluded because of the color of their skin reported lower sense of happiness showed a steady decline in their grades and expressed less trust in the university. Because many immigrant groups are stigmatized in similar ways, it is realistic to believe that they too will show the negative impact of these experiences.
“RIP Civil Rights Legacy” is an accurate declaration. HB 87 will only undermine the core impact of the civil rights movement: fairness and equality to all people. Certainly we need to address immigration reform, but the strong and at times insensitive discussion reminds me of the rhetoric of difference in our recent past.
One possible starting point is dialogue. Psychologists like myself have unique and important perspectives to offer to the discussion across several domains. Many individuals in the psychology community in the state of Georgia are ready to work with stakeholders to enact more humane reform that takes into account the power of our implicit biases and the damaging outcomes that these biases have in the lives of immigrants. The implementation of HB 87 as it stands now will only exacerbate these problems.
Krystal Perkins Ph.D. is a professor at The University of West Georgia.