By BRUCE MASTRON Special to the Sun As Floridians debate tougher policies toward immigrants, a University of Florida researcher cautions that governments frequently -- and unjustly -- portray certain groups as criminals, disease carriers or worse. Suzanne Autumn, a UF doctoral researcher specializing in immigration issues, said Floridians must not succumb to distortions and exaggerations when considering legislation similar to California's Proposition 187, which limits government services to immigrants. "As citizens in a democracy," Autumn said, "it is our duty to question misrepresentations that can keep us from looking at substantive issues." Autumn said she first noted what she terms dehumanization of immigrants in her research on entrants into the Central American nation of Belize. From 1979 on, regional conflicts forced Guatemalans, El Salvadorans and Hondurans into Belize. As the numbers increased, the government's portrayal of the arrivals changed. "It went from welcoming them as refugees needing asylum to branding them as illegal aliens." she said. "They began to be described as spreaders of sexual disease ... and criminals." And something sounded familiar: "I started seeing parallels with what was happening here (in Florida)," she said. "I remembered all the talk about crime and the Marielitos." Because of a few well-publicized cases, the 125,000 Cuban arrivals in the early 1980s were stereotyped as dangerous criminals, Autumn said. In truth, she said, the vast majority were no more prone to crime than the average American. The same misleading caricatures, Autumn said, are repeated everywhere in the world, with one group becoming virtually demonized by a ruling or dominant group. She cites the Algerians in France, Caribbean islanders in Britain and Turks in Germany as recent examples. In the United States, the same negative images have been used against one immigrant group after another, Autumn said, including Africans, Chinese, Irish, Italians, Germans, Slavs, Japanese, Latinos, Jews, Catholics, Muslims and others different from white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. Most recently, she said, the dehumanization pattern is found in the depiction of Haitians as AIDS carriers, even though the Centers for Disease Control removed Haitians from the high-risk group a year ago. Autumn said British anthropologist Mary Douglas pointed out the metaphoric use of disease in describing unwanted outsiders. "When there is a perception of danger to the body politic," Autumn said, "it is often described as a danger to the actual body -- a physical attack or disease." The language is similar to descriptions of germs as attacking a host organism: Immigrants are said to swarm over the borders; certain areas are said to be teeming with illegal aliens. ------- Bruce Mastron is a writer for the University of Florida Information Services.