The Americanist

Studying U.S. history, Chinese-born political science doctoral student Zeyu Chris Peng maps the impact of anti-immigrant attitudes on party politics

Leda Zimmerman MIT Department of Political Science

sign reading Immigrants are great seen at rally

Analyzing a variety of large, historical data sets, doctoral student Zeyu Chris Peng has tracked the position of American political parties on immigration issues.

Image: Piqsels

For Zeyu Chris Peng, pushing past barriers, whether geographic or academic, has paid big dividends. The sixth-year political science doctoral student left his native China after high school, determined, he says, “to try something out of my comfort zone.” After spending the past decade as a student in the United States, focused first on international relations, and more recently, domestic politics and political behavior in this country, Peng is publishing in top journals, and offering a unique take on problems at the center of critical social science debates.

“I am looking at the rise of exclusionary attitudes among politicians and average American voters, as well as studying how hostility to immigrants became a salient issue that around which political parties evolve,” Peng says. “Because of my own identity as a noncitizen and international student, I interpret and study politics from a different perspective, and can provide new insights.”

While many in-depth studies examine how racial attitudes have shaped political parties, says Peng, “there are fewer long-term studies on the issue of immigration, which itself is a hot topic.” Analyzing a variety of large, historical data sets, Peng has tracked the position of American political parties on immigration issues.

His findings, still emerging, point to the power of these issues to transform party politics and entirely shift public narrative. His conclusions may also challenge some assumptions in the field about who holds the reins on policy issues. “One of the surprises in my work is that sometimes interest groups that appear in control of the agenda, lose that control when they are discredited,” he says.

Immigration as hot topic

Peng’s dissertation work was inspired in part by a project that landed in his lap soon after his arrival at MIT in 2015, master’s degree in hand from the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Adam Berinsky, Mitsui Professor of Political Science, and Director of the MIT Political Experiments Research Lab (PERL) approached him: “He said, ‘Looks like you’re interested in how people form opinions on immigration, so I have just the project for you,’” recalls Peng.

Already years in the running, this multi-university study surveyed the attitudes toward immigrants of members from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints before and after international service missions. “We found that when these people spent time in places with significant Hispanic populations, they were more tolerant toward Hispanic immigrants when they returned to the U.S.,” says Peng.

Some political science literature suggests that social interactions between white residents and Hispanics can trigger greater hostility toward Hispanics, and engender exclusionary attitudes, he notes.
“But we show that meaningful interaction and contact, such as living with people unlike themselves, led missionaries to feel greater empathy and friendship toward Hispanics at home.” The results of this 12-year-long study will appear in the The Journal of Politics.

As Peng began participating in this study, the 2016 presidential campaign was heating up. “I saw how Mr. Trump had ousted every other primary opponent, and seemed to be doing so well in part because he was running on an anti-immigrant platform,” says Peng. As an immigrant who had felt welcomed in areas of the U.S. where he had lived, Peng “was shocked by his nativist rhetoric.”

He decided to drill down on the populist appeal of this rhetoric, examining the way it colored not only current electoral politics but voting behavior and party policies over time. Combing through large data sets of voting records and speeches from the U.S. Congress dating from the founding of the country until present day, and analyzing thousands of public opinion polls, Peng was able to reveal some very concrete ways the immigration issue drove changes in political parties.

Shifts in party policy

With a focus on the period that began in 1965, when immigration reform eliminated many quotas, to the current day, Peng explores some of the biggest party policy shifts in the nation’s history. At the start of this period, civil rights and union leaders, stalwarts of the Democratic Party, were worried about the economic impact of immigrants and unenthusiastic about their rising numbers. This picture changed over the decades, as labor unions and civil rights leaders “realized immigrants could be absorbed in multiracial coalitions,” says Peng, strengthening the Democratic Party.

But the biggest transformation occurred in Republican Party politics, he says. In the 1960s and beyond, Republican business leaders welcomed cheap, unskilled immigrant labor. President Reagan pushed for legalizing undocumented immigrants. Different industries also demanded highly skilled immigrant labor, so these special interest groups also advocated for pro-immigrant policies on Republican platforms. “Business leaders and employers wanted more people coming to the U.S., and saw immigrants driving economic growth,” says Peng.

In more recent times, though, the Republican Party took a decisive turn against immigrants — at least those from the Global South. Peng theorizes that the 2008 financial crisis was at least partly responsible for this turnaround. “The crisis damaged the image of business leaders, especially Wall Street, and they lost credibility with average Republican voters,” says Peng. “A vacuum formed, enabling the nativist factions within the Republican Party to gain more power.” Trump, a business leader, took advantage of this to “mobilize sentiments and seize the opportunity to become relevant.” Immigrants became convenient enemies to many Republican voters and restrictionist policies the norm, and this shift, says Peng, “was significant enough to transform the party.”

A passion for American politics

The son of academics in Beijing, Peng decided in middle school to become a diplomat, and after high school, made the leap to the U.S. to study international relations first at Johns Hopkins University, then in the master’s program at Columbia. While there, he developed an interest in American politics, another example he says, of his “preference for trying new things.”

At MIT, he discovered not only his novel research subject, but a love for the classroom. “As a teaching assistant over three semesters for the undergraduate class, Introduction to American Politics, I can add value by bringing my perspective as a noncitizen and outsider,” he says. “In the 2020 election, I told students that I had never had the chance to vote in a free and fair election, and as U.S. citizens, they should take advantage of getting their voices heard.”

He gives MIT credit for spurring his collaboration with other disciplines, especially computer science. “I used natural language processing and machine learning in my analysis of congressional speeches,” he notes.

Peng plans to bring the research and teaching skills he has honed at MIT to his new position as an assistant professor at Fudan University, in Shanghai. He also intends to broaden his dissertation into a book. His greatest hope is that his expertise in U.S. politics and political behavior might help rebuild ties in a rocky global relationship. “I can tell my Asian audience what’s really going on in the U.S.,” he says. “I will be an Americanist.”