Framing Unauthorized Immigrants: The Effects of Labels on Evaluations

In the U.S. media, unauthorized immigrants are often interchangeably referred to as “illegal aliens,” “illegal immigrants,” and undocumented immigrants.”

Abstract

In spite of formal equivalence, these terms carry different connotations, but the effects of these labels on people's attitudes toward immigrants are not well documented. In this replication study, 274 undergraduate students in psychology responded to one of three randomly distributed versions of a 20-item scale measuring attitudes toward unauthorized immigration. The items in the three scale versions varyingly referred to immigrants using the three terms. Results showed differences in attitudes toward unauthorized immigration between all experimental conditions. The label “illegal immigrants” yielded significantly less positive attitudes compared to the label “undocumented immigrants,” and respondents exposed to the label “illegal aliens” showed the most positive attitudes. Furthermore, the effects of the experimental conditions were not moderated by the respondents' patriotism, sex, or own immigrant background.

Psychological Reports, 2014, 114 (2), 461-478

Published May 5, 2014 8:00 AM - Last modified Sep. 3, 2015 1:35 PM