Publication Title

Harvard Latino Law Review


illegal aliens, terrorism

Document Type



The national broil over immigration reform is fermenting an illusory correlation and mistaken heuristic. Two events illustrate the involvement of legislators in the manufacture and mplification of this heuristic mistake. A controversial bill passed by the House of Representatives in December 2005 explicitly and extensively packaged immigration control with antiterrorism.' During his term as a congressman, J. D. Hayworth published a book claiming that inflows of people over the U.S.-Mexico border pose a "terrorist threat," that the nation has witnessed an "illegal alien crime spree," and that high immigration rates from Mexico threaten social instability.[para] Such pronouncements by legislators generate an illusory correlation between immigration and terrorism. Illusory correlations are distorted perceptions of correlation, including seeing correlations that do not exist or overestimating real correlations. Juxtaposing undocumented immigration with terrorism produces an illusory correlation, because the vast majority of undocumented immigrants remain today what they have long been—people in search of a better life, not terrorists intent on destroying life.[para] The Article also highlights the danger of manufacturing a decisional heuristic through an illusory correlation. The danger is to social cognition. When a group of people are cognitively effaced to simplify policy decisions, we risk planting fear and hostility where none existed before or ramping up existing fear and mistrust to proportions far exceeding rational justification. The people most likely to be effaced by legislative promulgation of illusory correlations are the unrepresented or underrepresented because they lack the typical voter check to jolt more careful rhetoric.[para] This Article proceeds in three parts. Part I analyzes how legislator-promulgated illusory correlations can generate distorted decisional heuristics. Part I uses the December 2005 House bill mixing immigration control and antiterrorism and Congressman Hayworth's Whatever It Takes as empirical windows into the process. Part II analyzes the resulting heuristic danger of distorting and inflaming perceptions against the politically under- or unrepresented. Part III offers approaches to ameliorating the danger, drawing on the fundamental insight that people alerted to the fact that they are operating under a potentially distorting heuristic will mentally counteract the distortion. Legislators can illuminate potential distortion and express commitment to caution without constraining free-wheeling debate by using the non-binding concurrent or simple resolutions. Civil society can deploy counterheuristic cascades to jar reason and disrupt distorting heuristics.[prar] Note: This article was reprinted in 28 Immigr. & Nat'lity L. Rev. 555-74 (2007).



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