We recommend first and foremost that advocates organize messages under a shared core narrative that emphasizes values, common-sense approaches, and moving forward together.
This body of research again underscores the importance of approaching the subject of immigration through a values lens. The more we are able to show that the policies we advocate for are more in line with our nation’s values than are anti-immigrant measures, the easier it will be to make the case for positive policies rather than only reacting to bad ones. It’s also important to communicate the many values that native-born Americans have in common with immigrant Americans.
- Open with reminders about our nation’s core values. While audiences are surprised by, and sometimes moved by facts, they respond best to messages that speak to their core values.Frame messages around fundamental fairness, and America’s core identity. Messages should cast enforcement-only approaches as violations of our nation’s values, highlighting in particular the importance we place on due process, i.e., everyone gets his or her day in court and everyone must have access to lawyers. For more persuadable audiences that lean towards more progressive positions, we should offer CIR as a more reasoned policy that aligns with our values. Fairness and balance are also important values to emphasize, particularly in discussions of enforcement issues.
- Emphasize the core values we all personally share. Audiences admired immigrants whom they perceive to value work, family, and the American Dream. In focus groups, much of the discomfort often stemmed from uncertainty about immigrants whom they perceived as not wanting to fully embrace these values. By highlighting the values we all have in common, and immigrants’ commitment to the idea of being American, we decrease opponents’ ability to create divisions and “us vs. them” discussions. Stress that immigrants understand American values, want to (and do) contribute to this country in positive ways, and that they strive to become a part of society.
A Common-Sense Approach
There is an underlying understanding that something is wrong with our immigration laws, and people want to decrease undocumented immigration. Because audiences do not understand much about our current laws, they are open to most suggestions, whether those suggestions are friendly to immigrants or not. Their central request is that someone do something about what they see as an overwhelming problem.
- Clearly and consistently state the problem. While we have framed the problem as a “broken system” in the past, this research indicates that such a description is not clear enough. We should specifically state which bad immigration policies are causing which problems, and who we should pressure to fix them. Communications should be specific enough to avoid implying that immigration per se or undocumented immigrants themselves are problematic.
- Assign responsibility. We need to name the specific policies that are broken and describe how we must fix them, and who we should pressure to do it. Avoid using the passive voice in describing problems and instead assign specific responsibility to specific actors. As the linguistic report suggests:
Instead of “the immigration system has ballooned,” try “Congress poured funds into detention.” Instead of “immigration enforcement is plagued by…” try “enforcement officials ignore human rights laws.” Instead of “detainees are transported,”try “ICE forcibly separates families.” The active voice holds specific individuals or branches of government to account rather than painting the entire government with the same brush.
- Criticism alone is not enough. When criticizing bad policies, always offer alternate approaches. Audiences made clear that criticism alone would not sway them from supporting harsh enforcement policies, but they could be persuaded that such policies were not the best approach available.
- Balance is a driving theme. People want to decrease undocumented immigration, but think that breaking up families and mistreating immigrants goes too far.
- Ascribe a positive role to government. Be careful about describing government as a villain (in introducing and implementing bad enforcement policies) when it also needs to be the hero of the story. One way to articulate the desired role for government is to describe pro-immigrant reforms as opportunities to move the country forward. Rather than harp on past and present mistakes, “framing the current problems as missed opportunities to have a working system, to live up to our ideals, to treat all fairly, allow us to describe what we don’t want without completely vilifying government.”53 Don’t just talk about stopping harm; give audiences hope by describing reform as a chance to do good.
- Assting a role for states. In the South, acknowledge that states may have some good ideas about how to change our immigration policies but that we need federal-level immigration policies to ensure that our American values of fairness and equality are upheld.
Moving Forward Together: It’s About All of Us
We need to find ways to frame discussions about immigrants that include them, rather than just describe them. Immigrant Americans are part of our national and local communities, not guests or intruders, as some frames assert. Meanwhile, we should make the case that anti-immigrant policies hurt all of us, not just immigrant communities. They violate our values, bring out people’s worst instincts, and have unintended consequences that hurt us all for the sake of the narrow ideological agenda of a few people.
- Emphasize the whole community, instead of drawing distinctions between “us” and “them.” Rather than portray immigrants as victims of bad legislative policies, frame them as willing and enthusiastic contributors thwarted by policies that seek to interfere with those contributions. By portraying immigrants less as a “them” with which audiences have little in common, we can focus on our similarities—our shared values of family and work, our common dreams of a better life for our children, our desire to live in safe and thriving communities. We can then tell a story about how certain laws make our shared visions harder to reach.
- Choose the right spokespeople. Some of the best spokespeople are those who appear to be objective about these laws and interested primarily in the overall health of the community, as opposed to the rights of a specific group or individual. For instance, a member of law enforcement or a retired judge might better overcome an audience’s skepticism about the existence of due process violations than an immigrants’ rights advocate would. Additionally, those who can report on the systemic, rather than the individual, nature of these violations will likely be the most effective in persuading people that we should change bad policies. For example, members of law enforcement, faith leaders, teachers, and business people—immigrant and non-immigrant alike—who can tell stories of the negative impact of policies on whole sectors and communities help to show that these laws are adversely affecting more than just a few isolated individuals.
- Talk about all of the roles women play, beyond motherhood. Often it is assumed that messages about mothers are sympathetic to swing audiences. Unfortunately, this is not always the case and in fact, immigrant mothers are often portrayed unfavorably. Instead, we should talk about the range of contributions immigrant women make.
- Know the audience. Don’t assume support among traditional members of the progressive base, particularly in the South. People of color and persuadable whites are not all immediately sympathetic to the problems that harsh enforcement policies cause immigrant communities. Audiences still need basic information about what is wrong with our immigration laws and policies and what we can do to fix them.
- Use facts wisely. Facts are important, but too many confuse the debate. People will reject a fact that contradicts a core belief. Choose facts that reflect fairness and balance. For instance, “Only 20 percent of undocumented immigrants caught up in enforcement tactics that can result in deportation have committed the types of crimes that these programs purport to address.”
- Consider language carefully. Using the word “illegal” is obviously damaging. But pro- immigration advocates’ use of “getting legal” and “a path to legalization” may unwittingly support the initial damaging term. If someone needs to get legal, it sounds like they are currently not legal and possibly even lack legal rights. Better language would be: “pathway to citizenship.” We need a range of terms to replace “illegal,” not just one term. Possibilities include “unauthorized,” “out of status,” “without papers,” and “with no documentation currently.” The linguistic report suggests:
Describe immigrants in the singular, and with more descriptors (an immigrant worker, a parent, a neighbor). “It’s not enough to avoid illegal. We need to put a face on immigrants. Defining them as individuals, who not only need but do, who not only struggle but contribute, is critical. Two strategies for this are (1) refer to immigrants in the singular with an indefinite article – an immigrant (2) mention them by what they do – gardeners, farmers, food producers, care takers and builders. Even making the small shift from undocumented immigrant to undocumented worker or undocumented resident would help.”54