The immigrants’ rights movement today faces major challenges. The last two years have seen a rash of anti-immigrant laws proposed and enacted around the country; a federal and multi-state assault on the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; problematic federal-state enforcement partnerships which have led to record-high rates of deportation; rogue enforcement operations such as those by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona; and the failure of Congress to enact either comprehensive reform or even more limited measures, such as the DREAM Act, to fix our flawed immigration policies.

Over the same period, there have been some positive developments. The Obama administration announced that it would not seek to deport undocumented college students and certain other categories of immigrants. California passed a cluster of positive immigrant integration laws including the California Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to access state and private financial aid for college; a law prohibiting cities from requiring business owners to use the inaccurate and controversial E-Verify system for checking the immigration status of employees; and a law that prohibits the impounding of cars at checkpoints solely because a driver is unlicensed. Immigrant groups in Nebraska have so far defeated anti-immigrant state proposals and introduced a positive integration bill.

The coming years will continue to present critical opportunities to reframe the debate on immigrant inclusion, to inform policy discourse, and to build the effectiveness of immigrants’ civic engagement, communications, and advocacy. This period is expected to include candidates’ debates in advance of national, state, and local elections; a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of S.B. 1070, Arizona’s anti-immigrant law; numerous policy discussions; and volumes of media discourse, town halls, and other conversations connected to immigrant integration.

The federal government’s failure to pass reform legislation has shifted the debate to the states and has necessarily led the immigrants’ rights movement to focus on issues of due process and discrimination. Racial profiling, exclusion from public programs and services, and detention and deportation without due process have become paramount concerns. To date, laws mirroring the repressive law adopted in Arizona have been enacted in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, and thus far, litigation by both immigrants’ rights advocates and the U.S. Justice Department has prevented the most egregious sections of these laws from being implemented. On April 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Arizona case and is expected to announce its ruling by the end of June.

As the public debate around immigration evolves, it is crucial to adapt our overarching narrative to the changing dynamics of the public discourse.1 In order to meet this communications challenge, The Opportunity Agenda, in close consultation with its partners, undertook a set of research projects in 2011 designed to deepen our collective understanding of how the public is grappling with the network of issues surrounding immigrant integration and immigration policy.

Focus Groups in Three Southern States: Given the anti-immigrant laws passed in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, and the fact that these laws appear to have broad popular support, The Opportunity Agenda commissioned First Research Group, based in North Carolina, to conduct a series of six focus groups in the region of the Southeast. The purpose of the research was to identify the themes and messages around immigration issues that could influence target audiences to oppose anti- immigrant measures and support more positive immigration policies. Two  focus groups were held in  each of three different locations, which represented a range of immigration policies, both positive and negative—Greenville, SC (African-American and Latino voters), Birmingham, AL (low-income African Americans and progressive white voters)- where immigration policies have been negative, and Nashville, TN (Asian-American and progressive white voters) – where there has been more success in discouraging anti-immigrant legislation -  during the months of May and June in 2011. First Research Group prepared  a report, “Southern Perceptions of Immigration Reform: Influencing the Discussion by Understanding Southern Voters’ Perceptions of Immigrants, Immigration, and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Debate.” The report’s Executive Summary with recommendations is attached as Appendix I.

Focus Groups and Survey in California: The Opportunity Agenda partnered with the California Immigrant Policy Center and commissioned Lake Research Partners of Washington, DC to conduct both qualitative and quantitative research focusing on anti-immigrant enforcement policies in general and Secure Communities in particular.2 Lake Research Partners conducted five focus groups with swing voters during the months of November and December, 2010: college-graduate Anglo women (Los Angeles), Latinos and Latinas (Los Angeles), African-American women and men (Los Angeles), and two groups with non-college-graduate Anglo women and men (Riverside). Participants were recruited based on their “swing” position on immigration, meaning they did not feel strongly one way or the other about whether immigration was “good” or “bad.” The focus groups were followed by a survey of 800 registered voters plus oversamples of 100 African-American and 100 Asian-American registered voters. The researchers’ “Message Recommendations on Combating Secure Communities” are attached as Appendix II.

Language Analysis: To develop a deeper understanding and critique of the language used in the public discourse about immigration, by pro- and anti-immigrant advocates as well as the media, The Opportunity Agenda commissioned the ASO Communications strategic communications consulting firm to conduct an analysis of this language. Using a variety of techniques from cognitive linguistics—a field dedicated to understanding how people process information and communicate—ASO analyzed 1,200 data points from current language about immigrants and immigration.3 The data sources included materials from both pro- and anti-immigrant advocacy organizations, popular discussion of the topic on blogs and in chat rooms, and media coverage. Based principally on metaphor analysis– cataloging the commonplace non-literal phrases that people automatically and unconsciously use to make sense of complexity —ASO made a series of recommendations about language to avoid and language to employ when communicating about immigrants and immigration policy. A summary of the consultant’s report, “Migrating Our Message: A Language Analysis of Immigration,” is attached as Appendix III. Because this research differs in several key ways from public opinion research, we have not included its insights as findings, but rather include the implications of those insights throughout the report.

Taken as a whole, the research findings provide a deeper understanding of public attitudes during this period of mounting frustration with federal inaction. It shows that inaction on immigration compounded by severe economic problems has produced a political environment in which voters are willing to consider increasingly draconian solutions. Today, even traditionally supportive constituencies such as progressive voters are not immune to xenophobic rhetoric.

The research also identifies important entry points for steering the public away from repression and toward progressive reform. Focus group and survey findings suggest that in spite of their fears and general lack of empathy for undocumented immigrants, there are lines the public is unwilling to cross—lines that they consider inimical to basic American values of fairness, balance, and due process. The findings also show that effective public education has the capacity to alter some of the public’s most fact-challenged ideas. For example, the cognitive linguistic analysis makes a number of findings and recommendations about how to “reinvent” some of the ways in which advocates speak and write about immigrants and immigration so that we do not unintentionally invoke unhelpful metaphors and do begin to break down the barriers and biases that lead voters to support anti-immigrant policies.

It is important to bear in mind that this body of research raises as many questions as it answers. Many of the findings are based on focus group research, which is qualitative research that cannot be projected onto a larger universe of people. Such research, however, is important because it allows us to explore participants’ concerns in their own words, determine their intensity of interest, and discover the sources of their ideas and opinions. The linguistic research reveals how people automatically and unconsciously make sense of complexity, in this case about immigrants and immigration. A series of suggestions emerged from the research about how to use language to win hearts and minds over the long run.