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Immigration & Xenophobia: A Psychological Perspective

Immigrants are everywhere, especially in the United States of America. According to the PEW Research Center, the “United States has more immigrants than any other country in the world. Today, more than 40 million people living in the U.S. were born in another country, accounting for about one-fifth of the world’s migrants.” (BUDIMAN, 2020)

 

Given this fact, there is no doubt that immigrants (both inside the United States, and outside the country—specifically those who are waiting on visas to become available in their respective countries) would also be on social media.

 

“The ownership of smartphones among minorities and immigrants is greater than 90% as low-income populations are more likely to be smartphone-dependent, with a smartphone being the only mobile device they own” (Hong, Hee-Soon, & Wen-Ying, 2021) and as such it is highly likely that they are on social media services. Not only to keep in touch with friends and family, but also to make sure to keep up-to-date on local and international news.

 

Immigrants are involved in politics—much to the chagrin of certain segments of the population—even if they can’t vote. Younger immigrants seem to have figured out that the only way to win on issues is to use social media and mobilize/organize U.S. Citizens who CAN vote. “Young immigrants use Twitter to educate their followers about political issues and processes in the U.S. and abroad – and to share both online and in-person opportunities to protest or vote. These young people appeared to intentionally target their ethnic and regional communities in their social media outreach.” (Wilf, Castro, & Quiles, 2022)

 

Of course, with immigrants using social media for change, surveillance of immigrants and immigrant communities was also naturally ramped up. From US immigration using fake profiles to surveil immigrants living within the US, even if it violates the terms of services for social media platforms like Facebook:

 

One policy document uncovered in the requests says DHS officers, who work on fraud detection and are part of US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), can use fake accounts to research people “requesting immigration benefits”. The document provides additional detail about a practice USCIS first announced in 2019. Those officers – working for the agency that decides who gets green cards and citizenship – can gather a wide range of data, including physical addresses, relationship information, employment and education affiliations and any social media posts that are “contrary to information submitted by the applicant”, the policy said. Any information collected in these investigations must be “saved” in the individual’s file, even if it is found to be not “derogatory”, according to the document. (Bhuiyan & Levin, 2023)

 

Along with even affecting those who wish to obtain visas to enter the United States of America, change visa types, or adjust status while within the country:

 

As of 2019, the forms for both non-immigrant visas and immigrant visas contain questions related to social media use. These questions do not apply to foreign nationals who are pursuing adjustment of status or seeking temporary visas while already living legally in the U.S.

 

Applicants must provide the social media accounts and usernames that they have used in the last five years. (Justia, 2023)

 

This kind of intrusion into the lives of immigrants wanting to come to the United States, or wanting to stay here, is a form of state sanctioned xenophobia, in my opinion. How easy would it be for someone to forget a social media handle that was used 5 years ago and make a mistake on such a form? It’s just one more thing that could possibly cause problems during someone’s already cumbersome immigration process.

 

There is, of course, the darker side to websites like Instagram, Twitter/X, etc. I’m referring here to the issues of self-esteem that tend to develop as people use them. Self-esteem issues coupled with xenophobic/hate comments underneath posts, articles, news having to do with immigration take a toll.

 

A study that aimed to “recognize the possible role of social media in forming xenophobia and hate speech against Syrian refugees and to understand the reinforcing causes and negative effects of that speech on the refugees” discovered: 

 

There are some causes that reinforce xenophobic speech, such as otherization and demonization of refugees, by the negative representation and spreading of fake news on social media, which are published continuously. Moreover, gatekeepers have a role in promoting negative representation by approving xenophobic speech transmission without filtering or ethical control. The results also showed that the negative representation containing hate speech contributes to more negative effects on the refugees, such as psychological effects, as a sense of hatred towards refugees is created in the host country, and the effect of changing the feelings of the public from empathy to compassion fatigue concluding to hatred towards those refugees. (Aldamen, 2023)

 

This study is one of those examples where fostering hatred of refugees online translates to xenophobia and aggression in real life in their host country. Of course, this kind of viral spread of misinformation doesn’t just stay contained to refugees. During the COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation was rampant, and so was Xenophobia.

 

A study out of Singapore provides “empirical support for the conjecture that the COVID-19 outbreak has had negative social consequences. Overall, the findings largely correspond with the existing literature, suggesting that higher risk perception of the disease and using social media for news purposes are related to higher levels of stereotypes and prejudice against Chinese immigrants.” (Ahmed, Chen, & Chib, 2021)

 

Social media helps foster in-group/out-group dynamic. And since there is a relative degree of anonymity online, it becomes very easy to other a person, or a group. To spread falsehoods and misinformation about others and to demonize them. A study conducting “Automated linguistic analyses reveal that self-reported survey measures correlate with the expressive use of social media for discussing immigrants. Higher anti-immigrant attitudes are associated with higher negative sentiment, anger, and swear words in discussing immigrants. The findings highlight the need to pay attention to the combined influence of social media use and individual political beliefs when analyzing intergroup relations.” (Ahmed, Chen, Jaidka, Hooi, & Chib, 2021) Note that this analysis was performed using Facebook.

 

There is no shortage of hate online. From government surveillance to create an oppressive atmosphere amongst the immigrant population to just random trolls screaming something akin to “go back to your country” or “when I came here, I followed the law. Why can’t you?” into the abyss of the internet comment sections under YouTube videos related to news of DACA, or the southern border. I think it is important to remember that we are all human, and that the immigrant who has little/no money, and may not be able to speak English has more than common with you than any of the rich billionaires you idolize as tycoons of industry.

 

As someone who has been through the system myself, I know first-hand the anxiety this archaic and draconian immigration system tends to generate. And I know for a fact I’m one of the lucky ones because I had the means to be able to afford an immigration attorney when I needed one. I also had the means to pay the fees without worrying about where my next meal was going to come from. Doing it the right way isn’t cheap; and without attorneys and paralegals willing to work pro bono, I don’t think a lot of cases would ever see the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Be kind to everyone, we are all human at the end of the day.

 

 

References

 

Ahmed, S., Chen, V. H., & Chib, A. I. (2021). Xenophobia in the Time of a Pandemic: Social Media Use, Stereotypes, and Prejudice against Immigrants during the COVID-19 Crisis. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 33(3), 637–653.

 

Ahmed, S., Chen, V. H., Jaidka, K., Hooi, R., & Chib, A. (2021). Social media use and anti-immigrant attitudes: evidence from a survey and automated linguistic analysis of Facebook posts. Asian Journal of Communication, 31(4), 276-298.

 

Aldamen, Y. (2023). Xenophobia and hate speech towards refugees on social media: Reinforcing causes, negative effects, defense and response mechanisms against that speech. Societies, 4(13), 83.

 

Bhuiyan , J., & Levin, S. (2023, September 5). Revealed: how US immigration uses fake social media profiles across investigations. Retrieved from theguardian.com: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2023/sep/05/us-immigration-homeland-security-social-media-fake-profiles

 

BUDIMAN, A. (2020, Aug 20). Key findings about U.S. immigrants. Retrieved from pewresearch.org: https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2020/08/20/key-findings-about-u-s-immigrants/

 

Hong, A. Y., Hee-Soon, J., & Wen-Ying, S. C. (2021, October 20). Social media apps used by immigrants in the United States: challenges and opportunities for public health research and practice. Retrieved from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8572748/

 

Justia. (2023, October). How Social Media Use Can Affect Legal Admissibility to the U.S. Retrieved from justia.com: https://www.justia.com/immigration/social-media-and-visa-applications/

 

Wilf, S., Castro, E. M., & Quiles, T. (2022, October 12). Young immigrants are turning to social media to engage on politics and elections | Opinion. Retrieved from penncapital-star.com: https://www.penncapital-star.com/commentary/young-immigrants-are-turning-to-social-media-to-engage-on-politics-and-elections-opinion/

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