During the past ten years, I traveled to over 100 jails and prisons in the entire east coast of the United States, giving me the to opportunity to observe the dire lack of appropriate medical and mental health care in our prison system. The most immediate and urgent need is to screen routinely for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among incarcerated individuals.
After assessing over a thousand men who face lengthy prison sentences and endured long periods of solitary confinement, almost every person I have encountered has had an unaccounted childhood history of abuse and/or sexual abuse. To me, this has been most notable among those who have had a long connection to the criminal justice system— namely African American men, and more specifically those who have endured long years in the foster care system.
Many of the same patterns are also emerging within our immigration detention system, and so parallel conclusions can be applied to the immigrant population who are being held in prison-like settings. The goal of this article is to make the public aware of a growing epidemic of PTSD in our system of mass incarceration and detention. It calls for urgent attention to this immediate public health crisis. Addressing PTSD both in and out of correctional settings would lead to less violence and killings in prison and in the community.
The effects of living with untreated PTSD almost always flags a misdiagnosis of a mental health disorder of some other kind and no clinical account of the person’s abuse that can then lead to relevant basis for mitigation and the proper course for rehabilitation. It can also implicate mistreatment of symptoms and prescribing the wrong psychotropic medications to a person. In some instances, identifying PTSD can offer context to a whole host of other issues such as Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Depression, or co-occurring polysubstance abuse issues. Once PTSD is identified, it should lead to a long-term regimen of individual psychotherapy and addiction treatment where appropriate, with an emphasis on the mental health component. PTSD does not have to last forever but when it remains untreated, it can certainly last a lifetime.
“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is caused by both traumatic experiences before incarceration and institutional abuse during incarceration that includes the six clusters of symptoms: (1) intrusive memories and flashbacks to episodes of severe institutional abuse; (2) intense psychological distress and physiological reactivity when exposed to cues triggering memories of the institutional abuse; (3) episodes of dissociation, emotional numbing, and restricted affect; (4) chronic problems with mental functioning that include irritability, outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, sleep disturbances, and an exaggerated startle response. (5) persistent avoidance of anything that would trigger memories of the traumatic events; (6) hypervigilance, generalized paranoia, and reduced capacity to trust caused by constant fear of abuse from both correctional staff and other inmates that can be generalized to others after release,” according to Terence Gorski.
What Are Some Barriers to Identifying PTSD in Prisons and Detention Centers?
- A lack of basic trust between communities of color and mental health professionals who present themselves as affiliates of the system is pervasive among the prison population. Just within the past year, I met seven different incarcerated men who admitted to never disclosing their sexual abuse histories in previous psychological settings, largely due to feelings of distrust about disclosing personal information, deep shame, and feelings of worthlessness surrounding the abuse events. Indeed, an appropriate conversation about one’s traumatic histories leads one to be in his or her most vulnerable state. It requires a delicate process of assigning a substantive amount of time to assessing trauma between the interviewer and the person.
- Just the physical environment of a prison setting alone can deter an appropriate atmosphere for eliciting intimate information about one’s trauma history. Advocates, lawyers, social workers, and counselors may have to request appropriate accommodations within the prison to do a proper trauma assessment. It is always most ideal for the incarcerated person to feel as comfortable as possible before disclosing details of their past and present abuse. In many cases, this will not be possible and the one performing a trauma assessment has to decide whether it is appropriate for the person to be engaged in this type of interview. Conversations regarding trauma histories should be facilitated in a manner in which the person will not be re-traumatized while recounting past events.
- Proper training of correctional health staff, forensic health professionals, and legal advocates is necessary and critical. Those within correctional settings and the legal system should become a trauma-informed community to address the incarcerated population in a more realistic manner. Becoming a trauma-informed community will lead to less prison abuse and killings within correctional settings. Treating the root of an undetected problem will likely reduce recidivism among those that keep getting re-arrested and have long criminal histories.
- Cross-cultural biases may influence the interviewer to associate symptoms such as anger, hypervigilance, avoidance, or depressive symptoms of PTSD with other culturally and stereotypically held beliefs about men of color in the prison system. In addition, attributing the nature of the criminal charge against a person can cloud the belief that the incarcerated individual was also a victim of trauma in the past. This often leads many professionals to dismiss the likelihood that a client has a substantive abuse history.
- Even today’s well-trained lawyers and mental health advocates erroneously assume that if a person had an early history of trauma and abuse, it would have been documented a long time ago during an earlier course of treatment in previous years. This is an inaccurate assumption. It should be stressed that PTSD has only been truly understood among the medical community as recently as 2013 and this framework is not yet integrated within the legal and correctional system. Thus, the correctional and legal system largely still relies on outdated tools and outmoded diagnostic resources. Our historical pattern of under-treating PTSD among the incarcerated begs for a concerted effort and inquiry.
- Language barriers can also deter identifying PTSD when it exists. If the person is unable to speak English, it is critical that a trauma assessment is conducted and modified to the individual’s native language.
What We Can Do
Anyone who has had contact with the criminal justice system should be automatically considered predisposed to the conditions of PTSD and Complex PTSD. This assumption should be more pronounced among those who have been charged with a violent crime.
Becoming trauma-informed almost always requires a client-centered approach in either mental health or legal advocacy. It is absolutely essential that clients are put at ease, especially within prisons. Conducting trauma assessments almost always requires a skilled clinician who understands the continuum of PTSD and what its components look like. It is also important to allot an appropriate amount of time to acquire information related to one’s trauma history.
Commonly used universal screening tools in a proper trauma assessment are the PTSD Checklist (PCL-C) and the Life Events Checklist (LEC). To screen for signs of Traumatic Brain Injury or TBI, you can use the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire-Revised, a more developed cross-cultural tool to assess one’s history of torture, severe head injuries, and other extreme life hardships. You can also use the Hopkins Symptom Checklist-25, to screen for depression and anxiety symptoms. You may want to also use the Beck Depression Inventory II (BDI II) to look for depression symptoms that frequently co-exist with PTSD when left untreated for a long period of time.
After conducting a trauma assessment, various relaxation and stress reduction techniques can be taught to the one facing and enduring incarceration. An appropriate amount of follow-up should be done to see that the person is referred to proper treatment of PTSD for the long-run.
Inhumane Immigration Policies: Separating Children from Parents
As of May 6th, 2018, new harsher immigration policies have been implemented with the sole intention of instilling terror to act as a deterrent to other immigrants attempting to enter the United States, regardless of the reason. This comes as a result of “zero tolerance” policies enacted under Jeff Sessions.
Sadly the most vulnerable, the children, are impacted the greatest by this policy when they are now being routinely separated from their parents at the border while the parents of these children are being portrayed as criminals and being called animals by the President of the United States.
Kirstjen Nielsen has equated their attempt to enter the United States as the same as an individual that breaks into your home and has their child taken away as a result. The reality is far different. While a large number of individuals come because of economic push factors many of the individuals entering, particularly those with children, are fleeing violence and are legally seeking asylum in the United States for themselves and their children.
One woman from Honduras described the heart-wrenching experience of giving her 18 month old son to immigration authorities, and even strapping him in his car seat for them, despite following the proper protocol in presenting herself to immigration authorities to seek asylum. More than 600 children have already been separated from their parents in the first few weeks since the new policies were enacted.
Even before these new policies were officially implemented, there was another case several months ago involving a woman from Congo and her child who were separated at the border for four months, despite passing a credible fear test, and were later reunited as a result of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU.
These immigration policies are meant to maximize suffering of those entering the country in order to act as a deterrent to future immigrants. This is in stark contrast to our values as a country, as well as our legal responsibilities.
The American Bar Association has condemned this new policy, citing increased inefficiency in the immigration court system as well as the psychological trauma of separating children from their parents. Sadly, many of the policies surrounding immigration have been archaic and draconian even before these new changes, including toddlers representing themselves in immigration court unless they have the ability to pay for a lawyer.
As social workers, we know the impact of early childhood adversity, and the NASW has spoken out against this new zero tolerance policy. Many of these children have faced great adversity prior to coming to the United States including witnessing or experiencing physical and sexual violence, living under threat due to violence in their communities, or being targeted specifically because of who they are—aside from the possible trauma experienced on their journey to the United States.
Research demonstrates the incredible resiliency of children in being able to bounce back from adversity, and one crucial component to that is in having one stable adult in their lives. This current immigration policy seeks to traumatize the families and potentially takes away the one resiliency factor the children have.
What can we do to help? There are several agencies that are working to help this population that you can connect to. It is crucial to apply pressure on elected representatives and vote in upcoming elections.
Most importantly, we must fight against the notion that it is ok to dehumanize immigrants.
NASW says plan to separate undocumented immigrant children from their parents is malicious and unconscionable
WASHINGTON, D.C. — A “zero tolerance” immigration policy that would prosecute families who attempt to cross the border and forcibly separate children from parents is malicious and unconscionable and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) will press lawmakers to rescind this egregious action.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions on May 7 announced the zero tolerance policy for immigration into the United States. In announcing the policy, Sessions continued an unacceptable tendency to use language designed to demonize undocumented immigrants. For example, he characterized the parents seeking to escape extreme poverty and violence as “smugglers.” This paints the unfair picture that parents are criminals – not asylum seekers fleeing terrible conditions that include death threats against their families.
The “family separation policy” means that all adults will be referred to criminal court for prosecution and their children will be held in the same facilities as minors who came to the United States without their parents. Also, parents may not know where their children are placed.
This awful Department of Justice policy is fully supported by the White House and Department of Homeland Security (DHS). NASW adamantly disagrees with this approach to border security and urges a policy which strengthens and upholds families regardless of their country of origin.
The decision to separate children from their parents as soon as the parent crosses the border into the United States is both harmful and inexcusable. More concretely, the policy directly imperils the health and safety of immigrants.
It is wholly un-American to weaponize children as a deterrence against immigration. It is telling that officials from the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) visited four military bases in Texas and Arkansas to determine whether they could be facilities to house immigrant children. This demonstrates the Trump Administration has a large-scale plan to increase prosecutions of adult undocumented immigrants and deliberately separate children from parents.
The government intends to send parents to detention facilities run by DHS while their children would go to holding facilities administered by HHS.
A plan to temporarily house children on military bases is alarming. However, it is even more concerning when we realize that the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) lacks the resources and capacity to safely oversee the influx of children that is sure to result from this ill-advised family separation policy.
HHS and ORR have been criticized in the past for placing children at risk. A 2016 independent investigation found that more than two dozen unaccompanied children had been sent to homes where they were sexually assaulted, starved, or forced to work for little or no pay.
The investigation revealed that HHS did not complete thorough background checks on many adult sponsors, all of which led the Chicago Tribune to describe ORR as the “worst foster parent in the world.”
NASW highlights HHS’s problems to show how the emotional trauma inflicted on children removed from parents for reasons unrelated to abuse or neglect may be further exacerbated by placement in unsafe settings. ORR will now be asked to absorb perhaps tens of thousands more children into its overburdened system. The family separation policy is not only irresponsible but reflects a willful disregard for the safety and well-being of these children.
NASW unambiguously rejects the administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy. It is reprehensible that government officials at the highest levels believe that separating parents from their children is acceptable public policy.
More than 700 children have been taken from their parents since October 2017, including more than 100 children under the age of four. There is ample research demonstrating that family separation can cause long-term trauma leading to mental, physical, and educational development problems in children. For this and other reasons, this policy cannot continue.
We agree with members of Congress who have called for immediate hearings to require all heads of the Justice Department, DHS and HHS to explain and justify such an inhumane policy.
NASW also urges Congress use its constitutional authority to insist the Trump Administration rescind this ill-conceived mandate. We encourage all agencies and elected officials seek a safer future for these children by developing policy that protects them from the harms of separation from parents who violate U.S. immigration policy.
Why Social Workers Should Care About DACA
The announcement made by Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program on September 5th should be a call to action for social workers. DACA is a program for youth that arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and have lived in the United States since June 15th, 2017.
DACA was enacted as an Executive Order under the Obama Administration to give these individuals who were brought illegally to the United States as children a chance to be a part of society. These young people are given the ability to apply for a driver’s license, to legally work in the United States, and increases educational opportunities. Most importantly it allows those individuals under the program to come out of the shadows.
DACA recipients are part of our country, and this is perhaps the only country they have ever really known. Many came to the United States as infants and have contributed to their communities in meaningful ways. A study from 2016 points to the economic benefits of the DACA program.
A reported 6% have started their own businesses and many business owners have reported wanting to hire more DACA recipients. Some are working as teachers. Many DACA recipients have reported increasing their civic participation as a result of the program and some DACA recipients even act as emergency responders. One recent example includes a DACA recipient in Texas who tragically died while rescuing those impacted by Hurricane Harvey.
DACA has been challenged by the Attorney Generals of nine states, spearheaded by Texas. Tennessee, however, has dropped out of the lawsuit as a result of negative pushback. Several prominent Republicans have denounced the ending of DACA and House Speaker Paul Ryan asked the Trump Administration to give Congress time to work on a legislative solution. Meanwhile, Attorney Generals in several other states are now suing to maintain the program.
To target hopeful young strivers who grew up here is wrong, because they’ve done nothing wrong. My statement: https://t.co/TCxZdld7L4
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) September 5, 2017
As it stands, DACA recipients will lose the current benefits they have within six months and face possible deportation if a legislative solution is not reached. This will impact 800,000 individuals currently in the program. How does this impact social work? Social workers serve in many capacities in the social services and may likely encounter those who are under the DACA program, including the school system and in college settings.
Most importantly, as social justice is a core value of our profession it is evident that we must align with upholding this program. Social workers should be on the front lines to advocate for this population. Those who have been given the opportunity to show their potential under DACA have thrived. Even DACA, however, does not go far enough in that it creates no path for citizenship, which is why the Dream-Act is needed. Living under DACA gives its recipients many crucial benefits, but ultimately leaves them as second-class citizens.
What can we do now? We must continue to organize politically and let our opinions be known to our elected officials. As a professional organization, we should place pressure on our legislators. We must organize our local chapters and mobilize student social workers. We must continue to educate others. Finally, with so many domestic and international crises looming we must not lose our empathy or capacity for hope.
As former President Obama recently wrote in response to the DACA decision, “What makes us American is our fidelity to a set of ideals – that all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation. That’s how America has traveled this far.”
6 Actions Social Workers Can Take to Stand with Dreamers
Imagine being ripped apart from the home, the only home you may know and separated from your friends, loved ones and everything you know. Imagine not knowing whether you may be able to continue an education and pursue a profession you have worked hard towards achieving and you have dreamed of all your life. Imagine being afraid to step out of your house to go to work or do simple tasks because of the fear of being deported. Imagine feeling like there is a segment of the population that may not want you around.
Thousands of immigrants do not have to imagine this. This has been their everyday experience since a new President took office and threatened to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that has allowed certain group of immigrants –young immigrants known as dreamers—who are undocumented the opportunity to obtain a work permit and avoid deportation. To date, approximately 800,000 people have obtained DACA, which has meant they have continued their education, joined the workforce, invested in homes, cars and have been able to live their lives out of the shadows.
On September 5, the President turned back his promise to act with “a heart” when it comes to dealing with dreamers and announced the end of a program that had given hope, health, opportunities, and life to thousands. Trump has put a significant segment of our community at risk. He could have saved it and even extended, but he didn’t. Instead of delegating this task to Congress and giving them until March 5, 2018 to come up with an alternate legislation, President Trump’s decision to rescind DACA is leaving many wondering and in dire fear.
DACA was more than a program that benefited just immigrants, it was a program that had proven to benefit our nation as a whole; economically—DACA beneficiaries paid taxes ($1.2 billion annually in federal, state and local tax revenue to be exact according to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy) and have paid dues to obtain and renew DACA surpassing $400,000,000 in revenue; professionally, thanks to the program, talent was added to our workforce—DACA beneficiaries are doctors, business owners, lawyers, teachers, therapists, engineers, students and impact every fabric of our society.
They are our neighbors, colleagues, friends, relatives, and in many cases our clients. DACA recipients came to the United States as children before they were 16 years old and have grown up holding the United States as the only country they know.
Oge Okereke came to the United States in 1999 from Nigeria to seek medical treatment after being involved in a traumatic fire. As a child not knowing much about the system, she overstayed her visa. Oge didn’t realize she was undocumented until she was ready to apply for college. Then the cruel reality hit. She was denied from many colleges due to her status.
Despite her circumstances, she was determined to pursue her college education so she worked hard and saved for college. She proceeded to start her education at a junior college and years later she holds a Master’s degree in nursing as a family nurse practitioner and she is currently pursuing post master’s degree in psychiatry. How can we as a nation tell someone like Oge that she doesn’t belong here? When she and others are selflessly given back in monumental ways.
As social workers, we know that anything that threatens the wellbeing and livelihood of our communities, it becomes an issue that impacts our profession and our country. As our National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics indicates the primary mission of our profession is to enhance the human well-being of all people, help meet basic needs and empower individuals.
When we entered this profession, we did so under an obligation to uphold a core set of values of service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, and integrity which are the foundation our code of ethics is built on.
Protecting dreamers and providing them with the opportunities they have earned is more than an immigration issue. It’s a human issue, a health and mental health issue. Since the election, direct care providers have seen a rise in anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.Together, there is much we can do to fight this important battle. Here are a few ideas:
There is much we can do to fight this important battle together, and here are just a few ideas:
Create healing spaces for DACA recipients.
If you are a trained social worker, providing healing and relief spaces through support groups in your community will be essential to promote community health. Support groups are a great way to stretch our services and it promotes shared learning among participants. If you don’t have a venue to do a group within your setting, consider partnering with your local church, direct services nonprofit or a local immigration organization. To learn about local DACA group near you visit United We Dream.
Provide pro bono or discounted counseling.
There are mental health needs that are not able to be addressed in groups but there are very scarce mental health services for people who are uninsured including immigrants who are undocumented. If you are trained to provide clinical services, have the credentials for it, and your setting allows you to, consider creating a special rate or pro bono hours for individual therapy.
If you do not work at a setting that allows for pro bono hours, consider joining a pro bono project in your community. There are several states that have created pro bono mental health projects such as The Pro Bono Counseling Project that serves DC metro area residents or The Coalition for Immigrant Mental Health in Illinois, currently recruiting pro bono therapists to serve dreamers.
A google search may lead you to a pro bono counseling project near you. You can also join associations like Open Path Therapy, where therapists who join network agree to charge clients between $30 and $50 per session.
Whichever route you decide to go, make sure that what you offer is visible and well known to community members. I am mindful that providing pro bono hours is a tall order, especially when many of us already have full caseloads and are over stretched, but imagine the impact of each of us providing 30 minutes to 1 hour of pro bono time per week for an individual session—all that we can we accomplish together. These are times to think creatively, reassess how we accomplish our tasks and maximize impact.
Activate your social work affiliated organizations.
As a social worker, you may be a member of social work organizations that hold a lot of influence. If you haven’t seen your affiliated organization release a statement supporting dreamers, I encourage you to reach out to them. As members, you have the right to have issues you care about represented by these organizations.
Join organizations and actions to support dreamers.
Several organizations are engaged in the fight to protect dreamers and fight for comprehensive immigration reform. Weareheretostay.org includes latest events, information for dreamers and a mental health kit. Dreamacttoolkit.org features direct actions that you can participate in. Undocuhealing.org also features healing and wellness resources geared towards immigrants who are undocumented. Other organizations to follow are DefineAmerican.com, Fwd.us, ReformImmigrationforAmerica.org.
Share your support in social media.
If you are in social media, let your networks know that you are a social worker that stands with dreamers. Use hashtags: #defenddaca #heretostay #socialwork
Your hard-earned dollars can go a long way. To renew DACA before the expiration date, dreamers have a short window to come up $495 for the renewal fee. Find an organization or fundraising effort supporting dreamers to pay this fee. Here is one of the several efforts to support dreamers. The aimed to raise $35,000 and have raised over $50,000 to date.
No matter what you decide to do, show up! Show up in a way that honors our social work values, our community and yourself.
President Trump Decision to Rescind DACA is Cruel, Unwise and Unjustified
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) strongly opposes President Trump’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and will work with allied organizations and Congress to continue protections for young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children.
President Trump’s decision to revoke DACA dismays us. The order is cruel, unwise and unjustified and could lead to a mass deportation of some 800,000 young people.
There is little doubt that DACA has been a successful program during its five years of existence.
DACA recipients or “Dreamers” have significantly contributed to the growth of our local state and national economies. More than 91 percent of young adult Dreamers are employed. They have also demonstrated their patriotism by joining the American military – some have even sacrificed their lives for this nation.
Abolishing DACA would end Dreamers’ pathway to citizenship and disrupt thousands of families. Many Dreamers grew up in the United States, arriving here at age six or younger. So it would be cruel to send them to countries they barely remember or where they do not know the language.
That the administration is postponing implementation of its DACA executive action for six months to give Congress time to pass bipartisan DACA legislation provides little consolation. Given the many urgent international and national priorities facing Congress, there are no guarantees that Congress will have the time to write and pass a DACA bill in the next six months. As a result, mass deportations of Dreamers are likely.
However, given that President Trump has punted DACA to Congress, the House and the Senate now have a responsibility to make passage of the Dream Act an immediate priority.
Many Democrat and Republican lawmakers opposed President Trump’s DACA executive action. NASW expects this bipartisan group will take a lead in quickly introducing and moving a bill through both houses of Congress.
Therefore, NASW will hold Congress accountable for developing an effective policy for DACA recipients that will avoid chaotic disorder in the lives of DACA recipients and their families.
NASW is also working with partner organizations to oppose President Trump’s decision to revoke DACA and is urging its members and the wider social work community to get involved in local and national activities to protect DACA.
NASW also plans to update its members about DACA-related legislation as it moves through Congress and to alert members when we need for them to take action. For more information and data related to DACA, visit the NASW advocacy website.
How Restrictive Laws Can Influence Public Attitudes Towards Immigrants
In the last few years, public opinion towards immigrants has grown more polarized. From the rising numbers of hate crimes against foreigners to the way the construction of a border wall with Mexico has become a rallying cry for some, Americans have growing concerns about immigration. What are the factors that appear to animate this polarization? My research indicates that exclusionary policies may be playing a role in the shifting dynamics of public attitudes.
The Effects of Anti-Immigrant Laws
In recent years, towns and municipalities have become increasingly willing to legislate on immigration matters. As efforts to enact national immigration reforms have stalled in Congress, hundreds of local communities have considered restrictive immigration ordinances, such as English-only declarations and fines for employers who hire undocumented immigrants. Such policies have spread throughout the country as Hispanic immigrants have moved into areas far beyond of traditional border gateways. Although the determinants of these laws have been studied, we know less about their consequences, including their impact on public attitudes.
In one such study, I focus on Hazleton, Pennsylvania, a blue-collar community that made international headlines by passing a strict anti-immigrant measures in 2007 that inspired dozens of imitators in communities across the country. To examine this law’s impact on inter-ethnic relations, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 103 residents of Hazleton in 2007 and again in 2011. I learned that the proposal of the restrictionist policy not only affected immigrants but also natives. After the policy was proposed, anti-immigrant activism in Hazleton did not subside, as some had expected. Instead, it spiked.
Why did the law have a mobilizing effect? Although residents had multiple complaints about their quality of life, the controversial new legal proposal focused the town’s attention on immigrants and solidified the perception that, as the Mayor argued, many of Hazleton’s problems were directly due to illegal migration. In effect, the law energized local residents and mobilized efforts to oppose Hispanic immigrants and the problems “they were bringing with them,” as Joanne, a middle-aged Polish-American resident, put it. Residents were inspired to attend anti-immigrant marches, and write letters to elected officials.
Another Study of a Controversial Law in Arizona
Although my interviews with the people of Hazleton were descriptive, my informants’ answers may have been biased by fading memories or their own views of the new law because the interviews were conducted after the law had been proposed. To address these potential biases, I studied Arizona’s controversial 2010 law “SB 1070” that authorized police officers to detain anyone they suspected of being an illegal immigrant. I evaluated the impact of this law on public sentiment towards immigrants by using computational text analysis to analyze more than 300,000 immigration-related tweets posted by Arizona residents in 2010. An advantage of twitter data is that it provided me with information about how residents talked about immigrants both before and after the anti-immigrant policy was approved by the Arizona legislature.
Using this approach, I found that the Arizona law had a negative impact on the average sentiment expressed in twitter messages about immigrants, Mexicans, and Hispanics, but not on the sentiments expressed in tweets about Asians or Blacks. However, the changes I found in public discourse were not caused by shifts in underlying attitudes toward immigrants but instead happened because the law helped mobilize users with pre-existing anti-immigrant views. This finding for Arizona mirrors what I previously found using ethnographic interviews in Hazleton.
Laws Can Have Material Consequences
Besides mobilizing residents with restrictionist tendencies, I also found that these policies could have other tangible social consequences. In a follow-up article, I found that the proposal of anti-immigrant policies in Pennsylvania is correlated with significant increases in handgun sales even after accounting for a rigorous set of controls. Using both newspaper and administrative data, I found that as public leaders made the case for these policies, they increasingly linked immigrants with crime and social disorder. In turn, newspapers were more likely to publish articles linking immigrants with a crime following the passage of restrictionist policies. These menacing portrayals of immigrants intensified social anxiety, which led to an increase in gun purchases.
But Effects May Be Ephemeral
Although my research shows that restrictionist policies have tangible social consequences, the effects tend to be ephemeral. When I left Hazleton in 2007, a few months after the town had approved the anti-immigrant ordinance, ethnic tensions were quite high. But much to my surprise, when I returned in 2011, locals consistently reported that open racial antagonism had subsided and mobilizations against immigrants had died down. In addition, Hazleton’s Hispanic population has continued to grow since 2007. Recent developments thus highlight the limitations of Hazleton’s exclusionary policy steps. Not only was the social and political impact temporary, repressive policies failed to stop the flow of Hispanic immigrants into Hazleton.
In short, my research reveals the unintended consequences of exclusionary laws – and also suggests their limitations. Although some politicians may endorse punitive policies in an effort to placate and attract, my findings suggest that these policies may actually stir the pot further and encourage individuals with pre-existing anti-immigrant views to become more politically active.
In turn, the increased political participation of these dedicated individuals may raise the odds that a new round of punitive policies could happen in the future. This feedback loop may explain why in recent years states like Arizona have implemented ever more punitive policies targeting immigrants, racial minorities, and homosexuals. However, further repressive efforts are not a certainty – as the calming of ethnic tensions in Hazleton demonstrates. In that city, immigrants are now a majority or close to it and they make vital contributions to the local economy.
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