Study of Studies

What Research says about the Effects of Contact with Immigrants

People possess all kinds of stereotypes and false information about strangers, especially about those outside our “circles.” Until we make personal contact with these outsiders, misperceptions about them are likely to persist. For one, I remember when Americans were surprised when they first learned that not every Chinese person knows Kung Fu.

Just like you’d expect, social scientists have long found that contact with out-group members can reduce prejudices about them from in-group members. Contact generates new information that helps in-group members correct misperceptions, increase empathy, and develop emotional ties (Allport, 1954).

This idea leads to the question: could an increased contact with immigrants reduce xenophobia and stereotypes among Americans? We do have some evidence to support this hypothesis. If one can recall the whole stunt of the caravan “invasion” in 2018, Americans who meet more immigrants are less likely to believe in it (Murray, 2018). More rigorous academic research, however, presents mixed results even when we limit our scope to those studies conducted in the U.S. While some research suggests that contact with immigrants can reduce prejudice, increase the perceived value of immigrants, and yield more support for inclusionary policies, others claim contact actually leads to stronger exclusionary reactions and feelings of threat.

Let’s first consider a study that asks this question: if you commute by train from work to home and suddenly one day an unusually large number of immigrants showed up, would you expect to instantly feel warmer towards them? Enos (2014) conducted such an experiment where he randomly assigned pairs of Spanish-speaking confederates to visit train stations in Boston, a homogeneously Anglo community, for two weeks. Enos found that repeated intergroup contact led to more exclusionary attitudes toward immigrants. Why didn’t contact have positive effects here?

As it turns out, the effects of contact are not universal – who and how condition the effects. One such essential condition is the “friendship potential”: the contact process much present real opportunities for immigrants and natives to become friends, and that typically requires interactions across times and different social contexts (Pettigrew 1998).

In Enos’ study, the demographic change he created only represents a superficial form of contact – seeing more immigrants in the community. Without the potential to develop friendship, the mere presence of outgroups is more likely to induce threats than reducing prejudices. Enos even suspected that repeated exposure can mitigate the initial negative reactions. Surveys of natives sometimes only ask for “casual contact,” which is unlikely to reduce the perception of threat (Gravelle 2016).

Other research that uses a different method also confirmed the “friendship potential” as an essential condition to generate positive effects from contact. Ellison and his colleagues (2011) asked how different aspects of contact with Latinos affect attitudes toward the U.S. Latinos and immigration restrictions. They found that the most consistent predictor of positive views of Latino immigrants and immigration policies is having Latino friends, followed by relatives. 

To become friends, ideally, there should be few cultural and language barriers. A 2012 mixed-method study (Newman, Hartman, and Taber 2012) showed that white Americans who came in contact with non-English speaking immigrants enhanced their perceptions of immigration as threats and expressed more support for exclusionary immigration policies. One interpretation is that natives and immigrants who have higher language skills and cultural exposures are more likely to develop positive viewpoints of one another.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, partisanship also plays a large role in conditioning the effect of contact in the United States. Survey studies found that contact only has threat-reducing effects among voters on the left (Homola and Tavits 2018). Democratic voters who are predisposed to political values like equality and tolerance are more likely to positively update their views of immigrants than Republican voters who tend to oppose social changes. In addition, for positive effects of contact to sustain, in-party members cannot provide contrary messages (Pearson-Merkowitz, Filindra, and Dyck 2016). When individuals are interpreting policy information, partisanship serves as a stronger heuristic that cancels out the positive effect of intergroup contact.

Besides partisanship, other personal traits also play a moderating role. People who have histories of positive contact with immigrants are more likely to report positive ones in the future. We also know prejudiced people less likely to engage in intergroup contact, though it’s unclear if they would report lower levels of both positive and negative contact (Kotzur, Tropp, and Wagner 2018).

The big lesson is that while more contact with immigrants can yield both more positive and negative effects, the positive ones are more common (Kotzur, Tropp, and Wagner 2018). Studies show that contact frequency consistently predicts a higher willingness for U.S.-born to welcome immigrants. Meta-analyses of over 500 studies concluded that intergroup contact typically reduces prejudice (Pettigrew and Tropp 2006; Pettigrew and Tropp 2008). In short, definitely reach out to immigrants around you, but remember that the effects depend on the quality of the interaction. 


Allport, G. W. 1954. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.

Ellison, Christopher G, Heeju Shin, and David L. Leal. 2011. “The Contact Hypothesis and Attitudes Toward Latinos in the United States*.” Social Science Quarterly 92(4): 938–58.

Enos, Ryan D. 2014. “Causal Effect of Intergroup Contact on Exclusionary Attitudes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111(10): 3699–3704.

Gravelle, Timothy B. 2016. “Party Identification, Contact, Contexts, and Public Attitudes toward Illegal Immigration.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80(1): 1–25.

Kotzur, Patrick F, Linda R. Tropp, and Ulrich Wagner. 2018. “Welcoming the Unwelcome: How Contact Shapes Contexts of Reception for New Immigrants in Germany and the United States.” Journal of Social Issues 74(4): 812–32.

Murray, Patrick. 2018. National: Public Divided on Whether Migrant Caravan Poses a Threat. Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Newman, Benjamin J, Todd K. Hartman, and Charles S. Taber. 2012. “Foreign Language Exposure, Cultural Threat, and Opposition to Immigration.” Political Psychology 33(5).

Pearson-Merkowitz, Shanna, Alexandra Filindra, and Joshua J. Dyck. 2016. “When Partisans and Minorities Interact: Interpersonal Contact, Partisanship, and Public Opinion Preferences on Immigration Policy.” Social Science Quarterly 97(2): 311–24.

Pettigrew, Thomas F. 1998. “Intergroup Contact Theory.” Annual Reviews of Psychology 49: 65–85.

Pettigrew, Thomas F. 2006. “A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90(5): 751–83.

Pettigrew, Thomas F, and Linda R. Tropp. 2008. “How Does Intergroup Contact Reduce Prejudice? Meta-Analytic Tests of Three Mediators.” European Journal of Social Psychology 38: 922–34.

Tavits, Margit, and Jonathan Homola. 2018. “Contact Reduces Immigration-Related Fears for Leftist but Not for Rightist Voters.” Comparative Political Studies 51(13): 1789–1820.

Tropp, Linda R, Dina G. Okamoto, Helen B. Marrow, and Michael Jones-Correa. 2018. “How Contact Experiences Shape Welcoming: Perspectives from U.S.-Born and Immigrant Groups.” Social Psychology Quarterly 81(1): 23–47.