Vermin, Rats, Viruses: How Anti-Immigrant Metaphors Activate an Instinctual Response

President Donald Trump with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen during his visit to U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in McAllen, Texas, on January 10th, 2019.

President Donald Trump is fond of describing undocumented immigrants in terms usually reserved for vermin. Just last summer, he warned they would “pour into and infest our country.”

New research finds that this sort of language has a pernicious effect on a specific group of people: Those for whom being an American is a central part of their identity. When such people read these remarks, they feel increased levels of disgust toward immigrants, and support harsher measures to keep them out of the United States.

“This research shows the power of metaphor to shape intergroup attitudes and support for government policies,” write psychologists Shantal Marshall of Nevada State College and Jenessa Shapiro of the University of California–Los Angeles. Their study is published in the Journal of Social Issues.

Evidence linking anti-immigrant attitudes with a fear of disease has been accumulating in recent years. A 2017 study found that people who are easily disgusted, and are hypersensitive to contamination, are more likely to support anti-immigration policies. Consciously or not, their prejudices are at least partly rooted in the fear that newcomers are carrying with them pathogens from their home countries.

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