Psychologists are voicing serious concerns over the controversial Arizona law that requires law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of people they encounter during lawful stops, detentions or arrests if they have a “reasonable” suspicion that a person is in the state illegally.

If it survives a federal challenge, the law could prove to be a public safety nightmare for police departments and communities, says social psychologist Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, a police department consultant and University of California, Los Angeles, psychology professor.

He’s not just theorizing. His research has found that both illegal immigrants and legal residents are less likely to report crimes if they suspect it could get their neighbors deported.

Goff is among a growing group of psychologists whose research suggests the Arizona law that seeks to crack down on illegal immigration will trigger a wave of unintended consequences, fuel racial tensions and create a culture of discrimination relegating legal Hispanic residents to second-class citizens.

Meanwhile, more states are considering such legislation. At Monitor press time, legislators in five states — Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina — had introduced similar measures, and according to news reports, lawmakers in Mississippi, Oklahoma and Utah plan to submit similar legislation next year.

On July 6, the U.S. Department of Justice sued to block the implementation of Arizona’s law, stating that the measure unconstitutionally interferes with the federal government’s authority to set and enforce immigration policy. The law is also the target of six other lawsuits filed by individuals and civic groups.

On July 28, the day before the law was scheduled to go into effect, U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Arizona from enforcing the law’s most controversial provisions, including the requirement to determine the immigration status of anyone arrested. The next day, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer filed an appeal to the judge’s decision with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

While APA has not taken a position on Arizona’s law, the association is working to mitigate the psychological trauma associated with immigration detention centers and promote the speedy reunification of families separated by immigration arrests, says Diane Elmore, PhD, MPH, acting associate executive director for APA’s Public Interest Government Relations Office.

APA member Carola Suárez-Orozco, PhD, testified on Capitol Hill about the impact of separation on the children and families of people taken into custody through immigration enforcement on July 15 (see “Government Relations Update”). Later this year, APA President-elect Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD, is convening a Task Force on Immigration, which will make recommendations for immigration policy.

The Arizona Psychological Association has not taken a position on the law, says AzPA President Chris Nicholls, PhD. But polls and surveys in the state indicate that a majority of citizens in Arizona are very concerned about immigration and support the law, he says.

“Psychologists are sensitive to the ramifications of the law, and we’re really not going to know until it begins to be implemented.”

A report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics estimated that Arizona had 460,000 unauthorized immigrants in January 2009, ranking it seventh nationwide. The state’s total population was pegged at 6.6 million in July 2009.

Unintended consequences

Psychologists’ research underscores their concern about the law. Goff and his colleagues conducted their research at the invitation of the Salt Lake City Police Department’s chief last year, in response to a 2008 Utah law that asks local police departments to determine the citizenship status of people arrested. A survey conducted by Goff and his colleagues of 199 Salt Lake City residents found that both illegal and legal residents said they would be less likely to report drug crimes to police if officers were “cross-deputized” for immigration enforcement. The survey findings suggest the Arizona law would curtail the flow of information to police departments about drug crime and its associated violence, Goff says.

“This kind of law is very likely to increase the situations that allow crime to happen,” he says.

At the same time, the Arizona law will harm children from families with undocumented parents, says J. Manuel Casas, PhD, of the University of California, Santa Barbara. In his work with immigrant families, Casas has seen the challenges children face when they know undocumented family members could be taken into custody at any time. Immigrant parents’ constant admonitions to be careful and to “not stand out” prevent many kids from getting involved in after-school activities, and makes school something to be endured, not something to be enjoyed.

Reinforcing prejudice

The law’s psychological consequences might be even more poisonous, says Jack Glaser, PhD, an associate professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. In effect, the Arizona law will relegate Hispanic or Hispanic-looking people to second-class citizen status, he says.

“A vastly disproportionate number of Hispanic Americans or Hispanic people in Arizona will be subjected to extra police intervention,” he says. “Even people who are completely legal, natural born citizens will now have a different existence in Arizona,” he says.

If a person believes he is getting more attention from police because of what he looks like, he may feel he is being treated unfairly, which according to research in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 57, No. 3) was linked to traumatic stress in Mexican-American adolescents, Glaser says.

In addition to reinforcing police prejudice, the law could spark prejudice and discrimination among ordinary people since citizens are allowed to sue jurisdictions that they believe are not complying with the law, says Jeff Stone, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “The law empowers ‘normal, everyday people’ who support the law to use their stereotypes and prejudices to characterize someone as undocumented, and feel justified in performing acts of discrimination by calling the police,” he says.

Several psychologists, including Cheryl Kaiser, PhD, of the University of Washington, are building on studies that explore how people are perceived differently and treated differently based on their looks. Her research also finds that people who are asked to prove that they have a right to be in Arizona by police won’t get much sympathy if they complain. That’s because people respond negatively to others who make claims of discrimination, even if discrimination clearly occurred (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Vol. 27, No. 2). “It could cause people to self-silence when they’d rather not,” she says.

Perhaps most troubling, however, is the possibility that the Arizona law will undermine equal treatment for all people regardless of background, says Lorraine Greene, PhD, a clinical psychologist with the Metro Nashville Police Department in Tennessee. The law resembles bias-based policing, in which police target those who “look out of place” — for example, a black person in a predominantly white neighborhood, she says.

“The implicit bias is, ‘You don’t belong here, and people who do belong here are people who look Caucasian,” Greene says.