The Immigration-Terrorism Illusory Correlation and Heuristic Mistake

20 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2008

See all articles by Mary D. Fan

Mary D. Fan

University of Washington School of Law


This article argues that the turn in political dialogue to juxtaposing immigration with terrorism manufactures an illusory correlation and flawed decisional heuristic. Illusory correlations are distorted perceptions of correlations, including seeing correlations that do not exist or overestimating real correlations. Heuristics are cognitive rules of thumb that help make difficult judgments and decisions easier by substituting attributes that are hard to assess or measure with a simpler proxy.

The immigration-terrorism illusory correlation generates a distorting decisional heuristic - immigration control becomes about fighting terrorism and danger, rather than a complex balancing of humanity, need, self-interest, privilege and conscience. Regulation becomes simple but grossly distorted based on the heuristic. Everyone is for stamping out the terrorism-tinged by ramping up penalties, walls and controls though we may have different and more nuanced responses about how to balance the complex concerns of humanity, human need and conscience. Preventing terrorists from entering the United States is an important concern and compelling duty. We should not, however, forego fair and accurate consideration of the complex issues of immigration policy that the nation has grappled with long before the September 11 nightmare.

Keywords: immigration reform, politics, legislation

Suggested Citation

Fan, Mary, The Immigration-Terrorism Illusory Correlation and Heuristic Mistake. Harvard Latino Law Review, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2007, Available at SSRN:

Mary Fan (Contact Author)

University of Washington School of Law ( email )

William H. Gates Hall
Box 353020
Seattle, WA 98195
United States


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