CORVALLIS - A new study has found that American attitudes toward illegal aliens in the United States are built upon the same variables that fuel prejudice against African Americans, homosexuals and other minorities.

The strongest, most common variable among people who have negative feelings toward these groups is "authoritarianism," according to Knud S. Larsen, a professor of psychology at Oregon State University and principle investigator in the study.

"These people are generally submissive to authority, preoccupied with status, preoccupied with conventional middle class values, and they persistently denigrate minorities," Larsen said. "They make their way through society by conforming and they have a very jaundiced eye toward those who do not conform."

An estimated 500,000 illegal aliens enter the country each year and the increasing numbers have prompted both political rhetoric and legislative action. In 1994, California voters passed Proposition 187, which sought to eliminate welfare, and other medical and social benefits for illegal aliens.

Other, more spontaneous responses from individuals have ranged from name calling to violence.

Larsen said racism and other forms of prejudice increase during times of economic strife in society. Social psychologists refer to the phenomenon as the frustration-aggression hypothesis or, more commonly, "scapegoating."

Scapegoating, he points out, is a convenient way to vent anger without taking on the real problem.

"Rather than deal with the trials and tribulations of our complex and often frustrating economic system, certain people target and blame minorities and the focus now is on illegal aliens," Larsen said.

Larsen said there often is an element of justification behind the attitudes - in the case of illegal aliens, the fear that our society is not equipped to handle a huge, comparatively sudden influx of additional people.

But, he added, negative attitudes toward aliens do little to address the problem.

"People see illegal aliens as a growing threat, not just in the U.S., but in Europe," Larsen said. "However, instead of dealing with the issue rationally (and through due process), the responses have included an increase of Neo-Nazism in Germany and a rise among the radical right wing in France."

The OSU study found attitudes toward illegal aliens were strongest on issues of access to U.S. borders and American payment for the care and education of illegal aliens. One of the strongest perceptions, Larsen said, is that illegal aliens cost the U.S. millions and millions of dollars each year.

"Other studies have shown that, overall, illegal aliens contribute more in economic worth than they cost," Larsen said.

The issue of what to do about illegal aliens won't go away, Larsen pointed out, and it likely will escalate.

"There are people all over the world right now, living more or less in crisis," he said. "They can't make enough to buy food, or there isn't enough food to eat. Or the government cannot provide the services that the citizens think it should.

"Those are dangerous times," Larsen added. "That is when fascism can rear its ugly head."

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Knud Larsen, 541-737-1365