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Political Scientist Yalidy Matos Explains White Americans’ Contradictory Immigration Stances

Yalidy Matos studies the racialized nature of past and present U.S. immigration policies. | Courtesy of Yalidy Matos

Though an overwhelming majority of white Americans support the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, many of those same people are in favor of other policies that harm DREAMers and their families, immigration policy expert Yalidy Matos said Wednesday.

As an assistant professor of political science and Latino and Caribbean studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, Matos studies the racialized nature of past and present U.S. immigration policies. During a topical lecture the 2021 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, she proposed that by ignoring structural inequality and placing a high value on individualism, white Americans can perform the mental gymnastics necessary to support the DREAM Act and punitive immigration policies simultaneously.

“It is completely possible for white Americans to hold two seemingly contradictory sets of values, norms or concepts in their head,” Matos said. “After the events at the Capitol on January 6, I would argue that it is imperative to examine and analyze this topic. Not just on immigration, but a host of policy issues that continue to be detrimental to our country.”

Introduced by U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Orrin Hatch in 2001, the DREAM Act would offer a path to legal residency for certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors. Over the past 20 years, studies have highlighted widespread support for the bill across racial and party lines. Matos’s own analysis of 2018 survey data showed that 73% of white Americans support the proposed legislation.

However, academics have ignored the fact that many of those same people back other immigration policies that are more restrictive, Matos said. Her study showed that, of the white Americans who support the DREAM Act, 48% are in favor of police having the ability to check the immigration status of anyone they deem reasonably suspicious. Additionally, 38% are in favor of fiscal punishments for sanctuary policies, whereby the federal government withholds funds from any local police department that does not comply with federal immigration enforcement.

Matos argues that these seemingly contradictory stances stem from the DREAM Act’s framing of those it rewards as thoroughly American in their values. Believing that structural inequality does not exist and that solid work ethic is the key to success, some white Americans can justify welcoming DREAMers — who must attend college or serve in the military in order to receive permanent residency — while remaining hostile to other immigrants.

“Support for the DREAM Act serves as a doubling down on the values motivating racial resentment: individualism, self-reliance, hard work, obedience and discipline, all of which should be rewarded,” Matos said. “White Americans use egalitarianism to reconcile cognitive dissonance.”

“My findings have broad implications for the welfare of immigrants, the future of immigration politics and American politics,” she added. “Understanding white public opinion and political behavior matters for this moment, and it matters for our society.”