Principal Opportunities


Audiences responded well to values-based arguments

The field of cognitive linguistics tells us that people form their views about issues based more on their existing worldview—and values—than on the facts alone: “When confronted with data that challenges core beliefs, voters do not reject their core belief; instead they reject the data.”37 This round of research found that in spite of their generally negative views about undocumented immigrants, there were certain lines participants were not willing to cross. Among the Southern focus group participants:

“There was a consensus across groups that in the pursuit of stricter enforcement there must not be an assault on American values. For example, a majority in each group believes that it goes against our values and core identity to provide no recourse for the young adults who were raised to be American and now find all avenues to the American dream blocked no matter how hard they  have worked.”38

Government actions that troubled these participants included racial or ethnic profiling, separation of families during the immigration enforcement process, and imprisonment without the benefit of due process.39 Some quotes from the focus groups illustrate participants’ discomfort with enforcement activities they feel are antithetical to American values:

“If I was a U.S. citizen but I was of Hispanic descent, I walked out of my house and I forgot my license. I would not want the police to take me to jail and lock me up because I was Hispanic.”40

“It doesn’t follow what our country is supposed to be set on. It’s actually saying that officials can suspect someone and actually prevent them from receiving a hearing. That’s not innocent until proven guilty. That’s thrown into an underground jail cell and when we get to you we get to you. But we don’t do that in this country, remember?”41

“Some immigrants are held here in prisonlike conditions without lawyers and without the opportunity to challenge their detention before a judge. I don’t agree with that. I don’t believe it. Yeah, it seems like that shouldn’t happen here in this country.”42

The Southern states research indicated that “Casting the anti-immigration movement’s enforcement-only approach as thoughtlessly trampling on our nation’s values while portraying comprehensive reform as an intelligent policy response puts the anti-immigration movement on the defensive while upholding the American values we hold dear.”43

The California research found that “balance and fairness are the key principles that voters want to see reflected in immigration policies affecting California.”44 Between the two, focusing on “balance” was more effective than highlighting “fairness” for several reasons:

“Fairness may seem a more natural fit, but right now life isn’t ‘fair’ for anyone in this economy or any Californian facing the realities of the state’s budget problems. Trying to grant ‘fairness’ to undocumented immigrants could create a backlash. Fairness implies more leniency than balance, and voters are not looking for leniency. Balance not only implies reform but also suggests taking action – reasonable action – where needed to correct the imbalance caused by the current broke immigration system.”45

Audiences were more supportive of changing policies after receiving more information about the current system

The fact that Americans, including those considered persuadable on immigration issues, are so unfamiliar with how the immigration system works is a major impediment to winning them over to pro-immigrant policies. By the same token, information from a credible source that leads people to question the “conventional wisdom” can erode belief in xenophobic myths and open minds to other narratives. The Southern states research suggested that:

“The communications efforts of comprehensive reform advocates will have to pull double-duty, educating the public before influencing their position. If the attitudes expressed in these groups are reflective of the public at-large, our political discourse has become so fact-challenged that most will have little concrete knowledge about immigration policy. Even among the most sympathetic participants some assertions of abuse or departures from American values go challenged for lack of credibility.”46

Certain facts can undermine arguments for stronger enforcement. For example, learning that it would take 34 years and cost taxpayers $285 billion to implement an effective deportation program gave even the staunchest supporters of deportation pause (although this information is a double-edged sword since   it gives ammunition to those claiming our government has allowed the situation to get out of control). Other examples of facts that seemed to shake participants’ faith in an enforcement-only approach were:

  • The absence of any kind of path to legality for undocumented immigrants who arrived here as young children and grew up in the States;
  • The ability of officials to deport anyone they suspect of being “illegal” without the benefit of due process;
  • The ability to imprison immigrants for minor offenses without the benefit of due process;  and
  • The inequality in the visa allotment process.47

People are hungry for solutions

Participants in all the focus groups expressed the desire for a solution and impatience with the lack of progress in finding one. Although frustration leaves people open to bad choices, it also gives advocates the opportunity to be the ones who can offer a solution that is actually workable and consistent with American values. The California focus groups showed that left without a solution, people had to find one on their own and tended to default to tougher enforcement policies.48 But they also showed that  when offered the alternative solution of comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), participants “felt it addressed their major concerns and if it could happen they would be satisfied with this shift in policy.”49 This was confirmed by the California survey, which found that 79 percent of voters supported CIR:50 “Both CIR and S-Comm are initially popular. Voters want action and, in the absence of an alternative, they will default to aggressive enforcement. However, CIR is more popular, has a deeper base, and a wider audience.”51 According to the LRP study, S-Comm tends to get support when people hear messages about its original intent to deport individuals who commit serious crimes, but that support diminishes substantially once they hear messages about the program’s lack of transparency, the burden on local governments, and its negative impact on public safety and cooperation among witnesses to crime.

In addition to the problems surrounding the proper role of government noted above, the  linguistic analysis identified another language barrier that prevents some audiences from embracing the kinds of workable solutions advocates promote: comprehensive immigration reform “means so many things as to mean virtually nothing. The public doesn’t seem to know what this entails. Further, it reinforces the idea of ‘immigration as problem,’ just as ‘welfare reform’ helped vilify public assistance. Finally, it’s a call to eliminate a bad without hope of building or creating a good.”52