This post is the first in a series in which Washington Post’s polling experts will explain how today’s biggest issues shape public opinion — and vice versa. 

Immigration crises, erupting like long-dormant volcanoes every few years, have redefined what ‘immigrant’ means to us. These crises cause us to react in deeply personal ways, forging our opinions on what laws we want and whether we will fight for them.

The latest round hit Americans like a tidal wave, with tens of thousands of Central American children surging past the U.S.-Mexico border, looking for food, shelter and family. News coverage spiked and sparked scores of protests across the country. Politicians were panned and polls show support fell for more lenient immigration laws.

What drives these reactions is not all pretty, according to research studying how we process immigration news. What immigrants look like – and where they come from – changes how we see the issue.

When immigrants are Hispanic, white Americans worry a lot more.

“Americans think of immigration in an ethnically specific way at this point,” Nicholas Valentino, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studied the impact of news coverage on immigration attitudes, said in an interview. “They think of immigrants as Latino. Latinos trigger an anxiety in some Americans that other ethnic groups simply do not trigger. It changes both attitudes and behaviors on immigration policy.”

We have more anxiety over some immigrant groups

Valentino’s view is backed up by a study he conducted with Michigan colleague Ted Brader and Elizabeth Suhay (now of American University) using a high-quality national survey in 2003*. White participants in the study read mock Associated Press news stories about increasing immigration. Half of respondents were randomly assigned to read a positive-themed story (“Immigration heartens governors”) and half negative (“Immigration concerns governors”).

In addition to positive and negative stories, the survey randomly assigned each story to focus on either Jose Sanchez from Mexico or Nikolai Vandinsky from Russia, who were described in identical ways besides their name and origin. After reading the story, subjects were asked a series of questions on immigration policy.

Unsurprisingly, those who read a negatively-toned immigration story expressed less support for immigration. But the impact of seeing a negative story featuring a Mexican immigrant was double the size of a negative story about the Russian Immigrant.

Valentino and his colleagues investigated the differing reactions, and found that negative news featuring a Latino immigrant raised whites’ worries and anxieties about increasing immigration, but not for those about Russian immigrants.

Whites who read a negative story featuring an Hispanic immigrant had a strong political reaction. In addition to higher opposition to immigration, they became more supportive of an “English-only” law, asked for more information about the issue and were more apt to send an e-mail  to their congressional representative advocating reduced immigration levels when asked in the survey**. Negative news about a Russian immigrant had little impact on political motivation.

Valentino and his colleagues found similar results in a separate experiment, based on interviews with local festival attendees, comparing reactions to a Hispanic immigrant to a European immigrant of different origin -– a Dutch Nicholas Van Dyke.

The experimental studies were small – fewer than 100 participants in each grouping – but the effects were statistically significant and large. Just 26 percent of respondents chose to e-mail a member of Congress advocating a reduction in immigration after reading a positive story featuring a Latino immigrant. Nearly half, 45 percent, sent congressional e-mails when the Latino-focused story was negative. But the negative stories had no impact when the subject of the story was Russian.

The findings point to a potentially powerful dynamic during media frenzies about immigration. Negative news about Latino immigrants makes white Americans anxious, driving up opposition to immigration and anti-immigrant activism.

Media coverage changes how we see immigration

Does this research match up with how Americans have reacted to the latest stories over undocumented minors?

In two clear ways it does.

Immigration coverage spiked sharply in mid-July, with the number of news stories mentioning immigration rising from roughly 2,000 per week to roughly 3,500. At the same time, Gallup polling found 17 percent of Americans calling immigration the nation’s “most important problem,” jumping 12 points from June to the highest in eight years.

On immigration support, a majority favoring a legalization-focused immigration policy overall flipped to a majority tilting toward deportation in a mid-July CNN/ORC poll. Nearly 200 protests were scheduled for a single day on highway overpasses across the country, and an Arizona candidate for Congress attempted to accost a bus of immigrant minors who turned out to be summer campers with the YMCA.

The child migrant crisis could be different

But the latest crisis – involving minors migrating from troubled nations – could be different, Valentino says. Those migrants may draw empathetic reactions. “It is harder to make the argument that these kids are just looking for a handout,” he said.

Indeed, Americans appear torn by empathy toward children and concerns about immigration’s impact on the United States. A July survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found 70 percent saying immigrant children should be offered shelter and support while beginning the process of determining legal status, and a similar number think they should be treated as refugees.

Chris Rice of Albuquerque, N.M., expressed a different kind of anxiety. “On the one hand, this is a tragedy that these people’s country is falling apart and they’re so desperate they’re willing to walk across Mexico. That’s sad,” said Rice in a telephone interview Tuesday. At the same time, he said America cannot accept everyone. “Knowing that we already have all of our own problems I don’t see us having the resources willing to do that.”

Rice doesn’t hold out hope for a positive resolution. “If they let them in, Republicans will call them bleeding heart liberals. If they don’t, liberals will claim we’re not holding up our values. I see it as tragic from the beginning to the end.”

Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.

* The survey was conducted using Knowledge Networks (now GfK’s KnowledgePanel), an online survey-taking panel which initially recruited respondents using a national random sample of telephone numbers. Probability sample surveys are designed to be generalized to the overall population. The total sample size included 286 white respondents, split into four experimental groups of roughly equal size (i.e. Positive story of Latino immigrant, Negative story of Russian immigrant). Read the full paper, published by the American Journal of Political Science. 

** The web survey offered them the opportunity to send an actual e-mail message to their member of Congress.