Anti-immigrant campaign ads negatively impact Hispanics’ mental health and make them feel unwelcome in the United States

As the November election approaches, Americans are overwhelmed by the amount of campaign ads flooding their televisions and social media feeds. It is estimated that by Election Day, over $9.7 billion will be spent on advertising campaigns. Between January 6, 2021 and August 7, 2022, 2 million commercials were aired on national television alone.

The volume of campaign ads can unfortunately be harmful to some members of the public because of the heavy emphasis on immigration and immigrants.

Although the United States has been home to an anti-immigrant political climate that has politicized Latino immigrants for several election cycles, the volume of campaign ads that focus on border enforcement appears to have increased this campaign season. VOA reported that 700 unique paid ads that were viewed 52.6 million times on voters’ social media feeds were anti-immigrant, divisive and/or racist. Many of these ads engender fear and xenophobia by framing the immigration issue around an “invasion” of immigrants coming to the United States that generates fear and anger.

Primaries push candidates to mobilize more ideologically fringe segments of their respective parties. So it’s not surprising that there was heavy use of border measures and anti-immigrant ads during the Republican primaries. Surprisingly, however, the southern border was used as a backdrop for advertising campaigns during the primary season in states without a border. That includes ads suggesting weak borders are responsible for drugs and crime in states far from the border like South Carolina and Alabama.

We are interested in how exposure to large numbers of anti-immigrant advertising campaigns might affect the attitudes of the Latino population.

Latino exposure to campaign advertisements and their impact on Latino families

We rely on the Abriendo Puertas/Unidos National Survey of Latino Families in the US to get a sense of how widespread exposure to anti-immigrant campaigning is among Latinos. The survey asked respondents if they had seen election ads on TV or online that made them feel discriminated against or aimed to make the public think negatively about immigrants. Over a third (36 percent) of Hispanic parents or caregivers indicated they had seen these ads, with a higher percentage of registered voters reporting exposure.

The National Survey of Hispanic Families asked respondents who had seen these ads how they felt about it. As reflected in the figure below, the most commonly reported reaction among Latinos in the sample was “anger.” This was a particularly common response among foreign-born Hispanics (+6 percent over their US-born counterparts).

The next two most common reactions identified by respondents were “nervousness/anxiety” at 40 percent and “fear” at 27 percent. When combined, these two outcomes, which are often measures included in mental health surveys, were mentioned by 67 percent of Hispanics nationwide. This is consistent with literature documenting how anti-immigrant policies across the country negatively impact immigrant mental health. Anti-immigrant sentiment has been ramped up by former President Trump, and research has found a link between Trump’s racist policies and symptoms of both depression and anxiety for Latinos.

I have found in my own work that living in countries with punitive immigration policies not only affects the health of immigrants, but also Latinos in general. This helps explain why US-born Hispanics, who are not themselves immigrants, are more likely to report feeling nervous or anxious when they see anti-immigrant campaign ads than immigrants in the sample (+7 percent for the native in the US Hispanics versus the total sample).

Another 29 percent of respondents indicated that seeing these ad campaigns made them feel like “people don’t want me here in the United States.” This is an important response to pursue because the social science literature has found that Latinos often report feeling out of place or feeling unappreciated in society when they experience discrimination.

Reflecting variation in Latino attitudes, 15 percent of a sample of Latino parents and primary caregivers said they thought the campaign ad they saw “is on point with what needs to be done with immigration policy.”

Implications and potential solutions

The rise of these anti-immigrant ads is indicative of the wider acceptance of this extreme political rhetoric, which unfortunately suggests that the Latino community will continue to be exposed to more stressful political imagery than ever before. This is an issue we should all be concerned about given the impact these ads are having on the perception of Hispanics that they are welcome in this country. Feeling that you belong and are valued in society is hugely important to civic engagement. Seeing evidence that exposure to anti-immigrant campaign ads affects sense of belonging is worrisome for those interested in Hispanic civic engagement, regardless of which party they choose to support.

To get around the millions of people exposed to this, the networks must be pressured into banning this type of hate and fear mongering.

A way to combat these harmful ads would be to prevent them from being viewed in the first place. To get around the millions of people exposed to this, the networks must be pressured into banning this type of hate and fear mongering. Whether by filing a complaint through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to enforce regulations or creating social pressure for change, networks are responsible for what they choose to broadcast and should be held accountable.

The ramifications of the spike in anti-immigrant campaign ads on Latino mental health are huge, given the limited access to mental health services that Latinos have had both before and during the pandemic. Latinos have greater delays in receiving mental health care (twice as likely as white Americans) and are less likely to receive treatment referrals for depression and anxiety than white Americans. Expanding access to quality mental health services to a broader segment of the Latino community will help address the long-term mental health challenges this community faces.

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