Significant Communications Challenges


Voters are concerned about economic competition

Fears of job competition and loss and depressed wages were apparent in both California and the Southern states focus groups. This public opinion research was conducted in May and June, 2011 when the nation’s unemployment rate was 9.1 percent, a figure little changed from the preceding five months.9 The rate in California was considerably higher—11.8% in June.10 The three Southern states where focus groups were held were also experiencing higher rates than the national average: Tennessee  at 9.8%; Alabama at 9.9%; and South Carolina at 10.5%.11 For African Americans and Latinos, who were included in the focus group research as well as the California survey, job prospects were even dimmer. Business Insider described the African-American rate of 16.2% as “Depression level.”12 The unemployment rate among Latinos was 11.6%, a figure that had remained more or less constant since the beginning of that year.13 Still in the grip of an economic crisis, the American public was not in a generous mood.

Participants in the California focus groups across gender, racial, and ethnic spectrums worried that immigration was creating competition for scarce jobs. Participants in the Southern focus groups perceived “an entire class of people who have not only gotten away with crossing the borders without permission but are rewarded with jobs being denied to ‘real Americans’ and receive government benefits that ordinary Americans are not afforded.”14 One of the major research findings was that “at the moment these participants believe that the illegal immigration problem is overwhelming and a direct threat to their economic stability.”15

The belief that “illegal” immigration was negatively impacting the country’s economy crossed racial and ethnic lines. African-American participants in both the Southern and California groups accepted the anti-immigrant movement’s rhetoric about “illegals” stealing jobs from “real Americans” (although African-American participants were also more open to the idea that big corporations were to blame for encouraging undocumented workers here because they will settle for lower wages). Latino participants also agreed that undocumented immigrants had a negative economic impact on jobs and wages (although they pushed back on the notion that “illegal immigrants” are or should be synonymous with the Latino population).16    

Given the fact that the economic picture is likely to change only very incrementally in the near term, especially for the more vulnerable segments of the population (African Americans, Latinos, workers without a college education), what does cognitive linguistics tell us about how to change the conversation about the role of immigrants in our economy, and allay fears that they are stealing scarce jobs from “real Americans”? The analysis suggests that advocates’ own language can sometimes contribute to the public’s mixed feelings about immigrants’ contributions to the  economy:

“In an earnest desire to garner attention and sympathy for immigrants, at times you portray them as helpless victims. Or problems to be addressed or coped with. And while this surely means the rules regarding immigrants are the problem, sometimes the language implies it’s the people themselves.”17

Further, “It’s very hard to pivot from victim to valuable members of society.” Language that implies that immigrants are the problem (e.g., “we must address the more than 12 million immigrants”), or that they are akin to animals (e.g., “police are on the hunt for immigrants”), can be at cross-purposes with the immigration movement’s goals of garnering support for positive immigration policies. Characterizing immigrants as victims undermines claims that immigrants positively contribute to our economy and our society by implying helplessness that requires protection, and potentially, special treatment.

Audiences had negative perceptions of undocumented immigrants and lacked basic information about the realities of current immigration policy

Focus group participants drew a distinction between “the right way” and “the wrong way” to immigrate. Those who immigrate “the right way” were looked upon with favor. Their immigration was viewed as an opportunity for them to work hard and have a new chance at a successful life. Those who came “the wrong way” were seen as freeloaders and lawbreakers, i.e., “criminals.” One participant said:

“I know that there are a lot of people that come here from other countries that go through the whole process of getting their visa and things like that but I know that there are a large number of people that are illegally living here and gaining health care and not paying taxes and stuff like that.”18

Given their negative perceptions, the Southern focus group participants were largely unmoved by the hardships undocumented immigrants faced or their constant fear of detection and deportation.19 A common sentiment was that those who come here without authorization know the risks involved, up to and including deportation, and are therefore not deserving of our sympathy. Another was that undocumented immigrants don’t want to integrate into American society. As one participant put it, “I think if you come over here illegal you have no intention of becoming a citizen. There’s no intention there.”20 Some of the Southern participants expressed the belief that “undocumented immigrants have chosen this path because they are unwilling to do the work required to gain citizenship, that they are here solely to game the system and that the challenges they face are solely of their own making.”21 Most of the participants in the Southern focus groups also viewed Latinos as synonymous with undocumented immigrants and worried that “illegal immigrants are taking over their cities.”22 The positive associations that participants acknowledged—that undocumented immigrants are hardworking and have close-knit family structures—did not displace their deeply-felt negative views.

The negative misperceptions, of course, indicate how little native-born Americans understand about patterns of immigration,23 immigration quotas, and how extraordinarily difficult it is to obtain documentation. “It is difficult for participants to perceive the difficulty or expense of obtaining the proper paperwork without an understanding of the obstacles within our own bureaucracy or the existing backlog that keeps families separate for decades.”24

Participants also had very little understanding of the difference between criminal and civil law violations. Several circumstances under which immigrants might be here without documentation are civil, not criminal, offenses — including a failure to depart after the expiration of a temporary visa. But participants were quick to equate any violation with “criminal,” further marginalizing immigrants from the mainstream and creating barriers to empathy. Even when the difference between criminal and civil law was explained, some participants were unmoved:

“Debating ‘criminal’ or ‘civil’ laws is lost on most participants. The distinction tends to matter more to those who are less punitive and dismissed by those who want to be more punitive. It ‘ought’ to be a criminal offense was a repeated statement.”25

The linguistic analysis shows a number of examples of how “the language of immigration” used by the media, by anti-immigrant spokespeople, and, to a certain extent, by pro-immigrant advocates reinforces negative stereotypes about and attitudes towards immigrants, and suggests alternative language that could, over time, change the framework within which Americans tend to evaluate public policy. For example, in a discussion of the role conceptual metaphors play in shaping beliefs,26 the analysis observes that “Sadly, the prevailing metaphor here is IMMIGRATION AS WAR”:

“In this framework, immigrants are invaders and America is under siege. The government—and self-appointed vigilantes—either defend her or fail to do so… While advocates do not favor this language, we’re not immune to it. In our version of immigration as war, the roles are quite different. Immigrants aren’t invaders, they’re victims.”27

Language that emphasizes immigrants as victims, “bills targeting undocumented immigrants” or “immigrants are prey to unscrupulous employers,” has the effect of evoking the immigration-as-war metaphor, which in turn suggests drama, conflict, and chaos, which are not helpful themes when we are advocating for sensible and reasoned policy change.

Another popular yet problematic metaphor is immigrants as water. This has been used very effectively by anti-immigrant advocates who repeatedly refer to the border as being flooded and inundated with waves of immigrants. The immigrants as water metaphor also feeds into the anchor baby myth: “Here we see two domains come together to lend comprehensibility to pairing these two inoffensive words to make a potent pejorative.”28 Using words like pipeline and flow tend to tap into this metaphor and “makes it difficult to see individual immigrants, just as a single drop of water in the ocean is impossible to spot.”29

There is also a great deal of language in immigration advocates’ communications that implies that immigration is a problem. Phrases like “fixing,” “solving,” and “addressing the immigration problem,” while aimed at the immigration system, bleeds over into how people think about immigrants themselves– as an undifferentiated mass of people who are problems rather than assets to society.

Language that implies that immigrants don’t want to become authorized is also problematic. Phrases like “we should require” or “they should submit to background checks” imply that acquiescence must be coerced. Conversely, phrases such as “we should allow” or “we can enable” give a more accurate picture of immigrants who seek to abide by our rules and standards but are thwarted from doing so.30

The terms legalization and legal status can also create additional challenges. While most immigration advocates do not use the term “illegal” many use the term “legalization,” which still brings to mind a legal framework. In other words, if someone needs to “get legal” or be “legalized,” the logic follows that he or she is currently “illegal.” And people automatically equate illegal with criminal. Once put into the criminal framework, it is much harder to expect audiences to oppose due process violations. On the other hand, advocates’ use of “a path to citizenship” provides a solution that is not mired in the legal frame.

Advocates’ communications are not always clear about the proper role for government

Winning the public’s support for the appropriate role of government is one of the greatest communications challenges advocates face, not only in the context of immigration reform, but in all areas of social justice public policy. We criticize the government both for its inaction in bringing about real reform and for its overreaction in violating due process principles. At the same time, we invoke the government as the entity that must make things better. This contradiction adds to the confusion the American public already has about the proper role of government in their lives, and this confusion was evident among our focus group participants.31

Focus group participants in both California and the South expressed frustration with the government’s perceived lack of enforcement of existing federal laws. According to the California researchers:

“Participants blame EVERYONE for the problems they see in the immigration system. They believe the President and Congress are inactive on this issue and have not done enough to secure the border. They believe the Governor and state legislature can do more. They believe some local mayors are running ‘sanctuary’ cities. They believe local police officers and sheriffs could be more active…The ‘bad guys’ in this debate…are bad because they are not taking action.”32

The perceived lack of action drives participants to “throw their support behind those who seem to be doing something,”33 including state legislatures. At the same time, some participants have bought into the conservative myth that immigrants are a protected class that receives special treatment from the government. As one Southern participant put it: “When I hear ‘immigrant,’ the first thing I think about is being illegal, no taxes, how they can come get businesses and flourish and it’s hard for us to get loans and stuff to start our businesses. They get a lot of perks.”34 This caused participants to be even more resentful of undocumented immigrants.

In the discourse about immigration, linguistic analysis points out that the government is both hero and villain—for both pro- and anti-immigrant advocates:

“For us, government is in the wrong on prolonged detention, poor treatment, inadequate visas, slow application processing and a whole slew of errors and omissions. However, it is also the actor we charge with improving the system…For opponents, federal government has shirked its responsibility in controlling the border and so certain states have valiantly taken up the charge…notwithstanding the frequent criticism, opponents also look to government, even at the federal level, to take charge of this issue…We must articulate the desired role for government in immigration. While this surely includes criticism of its current failures, we can’t tar the government completely. Otherwise it’s very hard to buy that this ‘incompetent’ entity is up to the task of altering and improving what we have now.”35

The analysis also observes that advocates tend to use the passive voice when discussing problems with  the system: “the detention system has ballooned”; “three were arrested”; “detainees are transported.” It argues that the “passive voice hides responsibility and makes it harder to see who is doing what to whom. And harder to insist that decision-makers do things differently and be accountable for actions  they  and  their  subordinates take.”36

Immigrant women are largely invisible outside of motherhood

The language analysis reports that discussions of gender and women in particular are absent from the discourse. The exception is in the case of mothers who are often portrayed unfavorably as irresponsible   or as using their children to obtain citizenship.