For years, the political left has championed various pro-immigration policies using very similar language, frames, and values to make the case. Whether it is relaxing immigration restrictions, defending the Dreamers, or treatment of undocumented workers in the U.S., those of us who advocate for more progressive immigration policy have sounded generally the same for decades.
We want to bring undocumented immigrants “out of the shadows,” for example. Dreamers were brought here “through no fault of their own,” you have heard. “No child should be separated from his or her parents,” we repeat.
This language represents the progressive position, but does little to persuade anyone to adopt it, and that has as much to do with message discipline as it does with pervasive cultural values that either help or hinder a person’s ability to consider certain solutions when it comes to immigration.
It should surprise no one that Americans do not come to the issue of immigration with universally held opinions. The majority of Americans support the DACA program, but (depending on the way the question is asked) as many as a third of Americans still do not. Americans are not wild about the President’s wall, but their understanding of what a wall constitutes varies widely. The majority of Americans oppose the administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy that results in children being separated from their parents, but even that finding is largely split along party lines.
What these polls ignore is the much more widely held beliefs that underlie our opinions on issues like immigration. Researchers at the FrameWorks Institute study these cultural values and have found that the immigration debate – and the ways in which Americans consider immigration policy – rest on the ways in which the issue is communicated.
While it is a noble desire to bring anyone “out of the shadows” and into the light of a productive and enriching society, characterizing undocumented immigrants in this way presupposes that there is some nefarious, even suspect behavior happening in those shadows. It concedes the incendiary frame of criminalized immigrants, and once our audiences are there, they have a hard time considering systemic reforms for a problem that they consider to be the fault of bad individual actors.
When progressives make the case that immigrant families are worthy of our empathy and of all American life has to offer because, for example, they are seeking a better life for their families, privileged classes hear that and trigger the story of the self-made success that is so famous in American lore. Those with self-discipline and hard work succeed and those who do not succeed just must have not had the necessary will power. If immigrants are similarly self-made, then they also seek to enter the zero-sum game that we largely view ourselves in. In other words, if they are coming to America to climb the same ladder we are on, someone needs to give something up in order to make room.
Similarly, if we position DACA kids as worthy of our support because they were brought here “through no fault of their own,” while we may elicit some sympathy for our subjects, we do not do them any favors when it comes to policy support. When we communicate in this way we perpetuate the “otherness” that immigrants have been victim to in American culture for generations, making it impossible for those of us who do not identify as immigrants to see how improving immigration policy could actually benefit everyone. Americans see immigrants and non-immigrants as living in distinct worlds, according to the FrameWorks research. If we do not see ourselves in the problem, then we certainly will not see ourselves in the solution.
An argument of “worthiness” is particularly problematic, and yet we as progressives make it all the time without acknowledging how vulnerable it is to the counter-argument that the “other” population is not worthy at all because of their bad actions. We are unwittingly ceding to the other side the assumption that immigration policy is something other people experience and that immigrating is a behavior that results from individual choices.
Instead, we should be leading with the shared prosperity we can all enjoy, and that many of us already do enjoy as a result of supportive structures we relied on along the way. While Americans may believe that rugged individualism is what made this country strong, they also believe that getting by with help from our friends is a core American value, too.
Similarly, while Americans believe that individuals should be punished for bad behavior, we also believe as a culture in the value of human dignity, and that we owe that to each other as humans. By appealing to these values with aspirational language and frames, we can position the treatment of immigrants – like those locked up in cages and separated from their families, for example – as inherently undignified and in need of change.
The extent to which Americans support solutions to any social problem is either limited or unlocked by our own ability to communicate with each other about it. What cannot be ignored, however, is that there are multiple ways to communicate. We can use language and frames that perpetuate unproductive and even toxic ways of thinking about the problem, leading our audiences to think similarly about potential solutions. Or we can use language and frames that help people get to a more productive and, frankly, progressive place when it comes to public policy.
Shaun Adamec is a communications professional, crisis planning expert, and recovering political operative. He is President and Founder of Adamec Communications, which helps those who seek to change the world find their voice.