Rodrigo Guzman’s desk was empty.
It was January 2013 and Christmas break was over. As the fourth graders took their seats at Jefferson Elementary School in Berkeley, California, teacher Barbara Wenger noted Rodrigo’s absence in her attendance book.
But he wasn’t back the next day, or the day after that. His family had come to the United States from Mexico on a tourist visa, now long expired, when Rodrigo was just 16 months old. As they tried to go home to Berkeley from their Christmas vacation, the family was detained in Houston, Texas—and then sent back to their native country.
After Wenger explained why Rodrigo would not return, the class of 10-year-olds, many of whom had known him since kindergarten, was shocked. “How is that fair?” she says they asked. “That’s ridiculous!”
The kids “tried to make Rodrigo feel better” by making him a video and sending him a Valentine in February—and their parents helped the kids to write to their Congressmen and speak out in the media.
More and more children like Rodrigo are crossing the border, many without parents or guardians. During the past nine months, 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been caught trying to cross the border, double what it was during the same period last year.
In the face of this humanitarian crisis—which experts blame on Central American drug wars—many native-born Americans have reacted with fear and revulsion.
Last month in Murrieta, California, angry protesters blocked buses full of undocumented children and women on their way to a holding facility. “Send the illegals back,” read a typical sign.
GOP policy backs the protesters: The only immigration-related bill passed by the House is an amendment that would revoke a program that has given 600,000 youth legal status and deportation protection. All other efforts to reform the immigration system have been blocked by the GOP and a small number of Democratic allies.
Why do immigrants provoke such strong feelings of both empathy and revulsion, a polarization that pits fourth graders in Berkeley against the citizens of Murrieta? What characteristics and qualities do Rodrigo’s classmates possess that the bus-stoppers do not? These are questions that psychologists and sociologists have been exploring for years—and their answers suggest how we can reduce the revulsion and foster a stronger sense of empathy with newcomers.
Why do we fear outsiders?
Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske has traveled around the world to explore the nature of prejudice, looking specifically at how different groups—from housewives and Christians to the elderly and immigrants—are regarded as being competent and emotionally warm.
“I’ve found that the outlines of both blatant prejudice and subtle unexamined forms of prejudice are identical in Europe and in the United States,” she says. “We’ve now done our warmth-by-competence map in three dozen countries, and the results amaze me: It’s the same everywhere.”
Immigrants, Fiske finds, are especially reviled in the countries she studied. So the protesters of Murrieta are not outliers in the human family—and when a trait like prejudice against outsiders is so universal, that suggests to scientists that it might contain some evolutionary advantage.
“At the end of the day, we’re motivated by resource-distribution,” says University of California-Berkeley psychology professor (and GGSC director) Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton, who studies stereotypes and intergroup relations. When newcomers arrive in the midst of a stable population that’s already worked out who gets what, “the most common human reaction is to hog resources, not to share.”
It’s a problem that arises from one of our best, most unique qualities: Human beings are extremely social animals that are very dependent on our group membership for food, shelter, and security. “We care deeply about our in-groups,” Fiske says. “But the downside is that you’re then excluding people who are not in the in-group.”
This is a social pattern that can be mapped in our bodies, down to a molecular level. Threat centers in the brain light up on perceiving an out-group member, while neurotransmitters like oxytocin seem to facilitate both in-group bonding and out-group exclusion.
The biological architecture of prejudice also hints at the fear that immigrants bring disease—people from faraway ecologies may carry different pathogens, activating knee-jerk disgust, as Mark Schaller and colleagues at the University of British Columbia have documented.
That’s why many American cities are excluding immigrants based on health concerns. As Mayor Alan Long of Murrieta, who led the protests to stop the buses, recently said in an interview, “you don’t ship people that are ill and contagious all over the country.” His fellow protesters held signs reading “Save our children from diseases.”
A threat to native hierarchies
In these ways, we’re built by evolution for in-group cooperation and out-group exclusion—but the real threat posed by immigrants may lie in their ability to upset the power hierarchies of the in-group.
“Any newcomer represents a threat to the person who has power,” says University of California-Berkeley psychologist (and GGSC co-founder) Dacher Keltner, who studies the impact of power differences on human relationships. “People with wealth and at the top of hierarchies aren’t thinking as carefully about what other individuals can offer and contribute—and this leads them to embrace stereotypes.”
The stereotypes can then be used to justify abuse and exploitation. “Part of the reason why people get placed in the low-warmth/low-competence dimension is to justify or motivate mistreatment toward those groups,” Mendoza-Denton says. In other words, it becomes so much easier to hand undocumented immigrants substandard housing or dangerous jobs if we call them “illegals” and categorize them as lazy and shiftless.
Mendoza-Denton points out that under the umbrella of “foreigners,” different groups will be perceived differently at different times, often to motivate specific behavior. “Groups seen as high-competence, low-warmth [like the Japanese or Chinese] are classified as enemies; people are classed as low-competence, low-warmth to facilitate abuse or neglect.” Out-groups are sorted into categories in order to motivate different kinds of negative behavior against them, from violence to economic exploitation to exclusion from good housing.
The discrimination is enabled by power differences between immigrants and the native-born—which in turn reinforces those differences. “Powerful people are more likely to see other people as means to their ends,” Keltner says. “I think the deeper point to me is that people in power have this status quo bias. They want the system to stay the same—but healthy social systems are dynamic.”
This is why immigration policy debates in America put liberals and conservatives on opposite sides. Liberals as a group tend to favor dynamic social systems and social change while conservatives, philosophically, try to conserve in-group resources and keep things as steady as possible.
Of course, both groups will claim to be compassionate—but conservatives will tend to see compassion as a limited resource, to be rationed for the in-group. Indeed, the final barrier to empathy with the new wave of refugees may lie in its magnitude: Horror over tens of thousands of children crossing the border without their parents transmutes into fear and repulsion, because many native-born Americans feel unable to help them.
“My lab has found that people are more likely to respond with disgust—and to dehumanize—such extreme out-groups when they anticipate that compassion for those groups will be emotionally overwhelming and exhausting,” says Daryl Cameron, a psychologist at the University of Iowa.
Can we tame xenophobia?
If xenophobia has such deep evolutionary and psychological roots, what explains Ms. Wenger’s fourth-grade class, which rallied to support their friend Rodrigo after he was sent back to Mexico?
Both liberals and conservatives have claimed that the most important fact of the Berkeley case is that they are children. For some liberal commentators, Wenger’s class stands as proof that children are born without prejudice, and that hate must be taught. Conservatives have a different take, suggesting that the embrace of an undocumented immigrant in their midst is just the result of an inexperienced, childish perspective. “That’s what I want a bunch of fourth graders making legislation,” wrote one commentator on the right-wing site newsbuster.com. “MACARONI AND CHEESE EVERY DAY FOR SUPPER!!!!”
But both groups are wrong, the research suggests.
From a very young age, children start sorting themselves into in-groups and out-groups, so the potential for prejudice is there before social conditioning takes hold, contrary to what many liberals believe. But in this case, says the research, their age is not as important as the fact that many of them had sat in the same classroom as Rodrigo for almost five years, in one of the most racially integrated and culturally diverse school districts in the nation.
This is what social scientists call the contact hypothesis—the simple idea that contact between groups facilitates tolerance and cooperation. Research finds that its effects are deep and long lasting, which is why conservatives are wrong to malign Rodrigo’s classmates as childish: They’ll likely take that multicultural perspective into adulthood.
Many studies have found that the brain stops going into high alert when exposed to out-group faces if steps are taken to make the faces familiar. Researchers also find that our definition of who is part of the in-group is extremely malleable. This is often simply a matter of giving two different groups the same goal, as Muzafer Sherif discovered 50 years ago in his famed “Robbers Cave” experiment. Nothing binds children of different races together more quickly than needing to dissect a frog together in science class.
Later studies by Thomas Pettigrew and Linda Tropp elaborated on this insight. In addition to having common goals, they found kids need to be treated as equals and to have non-competitive interactions with one another.
That last bit—cooperation over competition—turns out to be rather important. “In our research, we talk about warmth and competence dimensions,” Fiske says. “And the warmth dimension is completely predicted by cooperative or competitive intent.” As Mendoza-Denton says, “There are ways to conceptualize immigration, not on a deficit model, but as bringing in skills and resources that grow the economy, potentially growing the pool of what goes around.”
The fourth graders of Berkeley are different in another way from the citizens of Murrieta: the values of the people leading their communities.
In Murrieta, the town’s mayor led the anti-immigrant protests. In Berkeley, teachers and administrators never lose an opportunity to talk about the value of diversity. As the district’s website says, “Berkeley Unified School District believes that diversity in our student population enriches the educational experiences of students.” The leadership’s framing emphasizes that newcomers strengthen the community with new ideas and energy, as opposed to threatening its integrity.
“The views and messages from authorities really matter,” Mendoza-Denton says. “Because difficult intergroup situations are ambiguous—and in ambiguous situations people look to leaders to set the tone. That’s got to be really consistent across different levels of leadership.” As part of that leadership, people need to hear solutions, to mitigate the fear that compassion will lead to feeling overwhelmed.
Keltner also says it helps for native-born people to be conscious of their power over newcomers:
A lot of great leaders, like Abraham Lincoln, had this very disciplined approach to the ethics of power—you have to be humble, you have to listen, you have to serve—because the forces of power push us in the opposite direction. Ultimately, you have to find a cause that’s about other people—otherwise, you’re Justin Bieber.
That may be the final difference between the fourth graders of Berkeley and the protesters of Murrieta: They had a cause that was about someone else, not themselves. “It isn’t fair,” one classmate told the website Berkeleyside. “All of his classmates and all of his friends miss him and he misses Berkeley.” In contrast, the slogans of Murrieta—e.g., “We have no money for you”—were uniformly negative and self-centered.
Thus the prescription for increasing empathy with immigrants contains a one-two punch: One punch is emotional and social, to overcome innate fear of outsiders; the other is cognitive and educational, to correct for irrational fears like the one of disease. “If you’re talking about cognitive-behavioral therapy for depression, there’s a very strong education component where you try to persuade the person to empirically examine their own beliefs,” says Mendoza-Denton.
These are ideas that Wenger put to work in her fourth-grade class. As a teacher, she says she understands that sometimes a rule is a rule, and that rules must be followed. She explained to her class that Rodrigo’s parents broke the law. But the education doesn’t stop there for Wenger, because you must also ask why the family broke the law—and if the law applies equally to everyone.
“When shaping immigration policy, we should be holding in the front of our minds that we’re talking about real families, real kids, who have hopes and incredible stories,” she says. “If we can’t hold those real people at the forefront of any discussion around immigration policy, then we just fall into rhetoric. We end up just saying ‘A rule’s a rule’ or ‘We have something that other people shouldn’t be able to get’ or ‘We’re going to be damaged because of these hordes of people coming through.’”
Wenger’s advice to the protesters of Murrieta? “Sit down and have supper with immigrants,” she says. “Ask them their stories.”
It would be a start.
This article originally appeared in Pacific Standard magazine.