Immigrants Are Losing the Policy Fight. But That’s Beside the Point
Like many others, I’ve worked for years to get Americans to think expansively and compassionately about immigration. In a decade dominated by the push for what’s been dubbed “comprehensive immigration reform,” I’ve argued that immigrants drive economic growth, pay taxes, add value to the culture, and don’t take jobs from native-born people. Although I wasn’t thrilled with the enforcement elements of the policy—that fence, beefing up the Border Patrol, growing detention and deportation—it seemed amazing that Congress was even considering changing the status of as many as 12 million undocumented people. Most of the immigrant rights movement focused on winning that policy, and for a time, it really seemed possible.
That was then. In the spring of 2007, the last decent bill authored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy died in Congress. There have been other bills since, each with more enforcement and less legalization. President Obama’s election seemed a hopeful sign, but he refused to move forward without Republicans and then deported record numbers. The moderate Republican on this issue has become scarce; by 2011, even McCain was claiming that border crossers had started wildfires in the Arizona desert. Democrats too have moved to the right, adopting harsher language and stressing enforcement. The immigrant rights movement, for all its vibrancy and depth, has been losing the policy fight.
That’s because the movement has also been losing the profoundly racialized cultural fight over the nation’s identity, limiting our ability to frame the debate.
I watch lots of TV, where Hollywood tells the same story again and again: beleaguered Americans and their law enforcers confront hordes of “criminal aliens” rushing our borders. As a cultural event, September 11 became a gift to xenophobes, giving the show “24” its reason for being, and helping to make South Asians, Arabs and Muslims subjects of suspicion wherever they went. Battles over the building of mosques have been carried out with epic heat in Murfreesboro, TN., and New York City, during the same period that a Florida preacher threatened to burn a Quran. These “swarthy” communities have endured a relentless barrage of attacks, long predating the August massacre at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc.
Reality TV has been inspired by immigration enforcement. Sherriff Joe Arpaio, who at age 80 doesn’t seem done winning elections in Maricopa County, Ariz., had a three-episode pilot on the Fox Reality Channel. “Border Wars,” “Law on the Border,” “Homeland Security USA,” and “Border Battles,” all aired on channels like National Geographic and Animal Planet. It was exciting to see a meaningful storyline about an undocumented father on “Ugly Betty,” but that was hardly enough to compete with the volume of material glorifying the other perspective.
The image of the unwanted, unscrupulous, immoral immigrant permeates television, talk radio, and movie screens, yet pro-immigrant organizations have largely neglected even to pick a cultural fight, until recently. That fact has started to change since 2007, as the movement took up a cultural strategy to tell the modern immigrant’s story in as many ways as we can find.
DREAMers—the youth who have advocated for and come to embody legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for some people brought to the U.S. as children—are making art and creating new words. Organizers are adding programs designed simply to put native-born and immigrant Americans in contact. Documentary and fiction films about undocumented people are finding audiences. And thousands of people are raising questions about the language of “illegality” in immigration talk. These are the activities that reframe the debate by establishing immigrants as full human beings—not just workers—who are exercising the core human urge to seek brighter conditions.
If the death of hope on a comprehensive reform policy has a positive spin, we can find it in the space that has opened up for cultural work on the issue. Only the thoughtful integration of these tactics with traditional policy pushes can get us out of a period dominated by bad news for immigrants.
The Roots of Failure
In 2005, the Minute Man Civil Defense Corps Project set up to do what the federal government supposedly wouldn’t. Frank Sharry, then director of the National Immigration Forum, sees this event as a key volley in the culture war, noting the massive press attention on Project founder Chris Simcox.
“Prior to this,” Sharry said, “racism in the anti-immigration movement was latent but not activated. The Minute Man Civil Defense Corps Project was a grassroots white nationalist movement. Not that everyone who showed up was a white nationalist, but the idea was to keep those brown people out.” Even Jim Gilchrist, the founder of a financial investigation outfit The Minute Man Project, which targets employers of undocumented workers, has spoken out against the racist tone of vigilantes. He told the Atlantic that they were “nothing but a bunch of skinheads.”
That same year, conservative communications guru Frank Luntz wrote a strategy memo for restrictionists, stressing the law-and-order frame. He instructed the movement to use “illegal immigrant” always, but never “illegals” because the noun was too dehumanizing and would drive away Latinos. The Associated Press blessed that phrasing with its style book, calling the adjective a neutral term while warning people never to use the noun. All this parsing out of nouns and adjectives indicates a great faith in the average American’s knowledge of grammar, a faith that hasn’t been borne out by a reality in which everyday people, pundits and politicians regularly refer to immigrants as “illegals.”
Leaders of D.C.-based immigrant rights organizations are now self critical about their slow response to a changing climate. Deepak Bhargava, director of the Center for Community Change, which maintains a national network of state and local immigrant organizations, said, “Prior to ‘07, and I don’t consider myself innocent in this regard, there was a squeamishness, an uncertainty, a tentativeness that people projected about framing immigration in terms of the racial debate.”
Those people woke up after the fall of the McCain-Kennedy bill. Republicans were clearly conflicted, with longtime supporters like Sam Brownback turning tail, while Trent Lott, of all people, berated his party for voting against reform because of racism. “We were naïve enough to think we were in a public policy fight,” said Sharry, acknowledging that he was directly criticized for years by colleagues who warned him this was the inevitable outcome of a limited strategy. “When even a right-leaning, back-room reform was defeated, it showed the right was not interested in policy debate.”
The question is, how does a society grapple with choices that touch on our deepest racial divides?
In one intervention, the pro-immigrant movement exposed the ties between restrictionist organizations and white supremacists. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, documented the role of eugenicist John Tanton in founding FAIR, Numbers USA and Center for Immigration Studies—all crucial groups in the restrictionist movement. Those connections have been well covered now in the mainstream and independent press, yet it has had little effect on the credibility of these organizations. There are two reasons for that fact: Who sits on what board of directors is of little concern to most people, and the accusation of white supremacy is a blunt instrument in a nuanced racial situation. As Bhargava put it, “You can’t just call all the people who resist reform white supremacists and be done with it.”
By 2010, mainstream communications advice for immigrant rights leaned toward giving Americans what they seemed to want: tougher enforcement with a little compassion. The cognitive psychologist Drew Westen released research in partnership with America’s Voice, Sharry’s organization, and the Center for American Progress that supported using “illegal immigrant” to signal a tough stance on immigration. Westen said the phrase opened up people who were ambivalent about immigration to the idea of legalization. “When [voters] hear ‘undocumented worker,’ they hear a liberal euphemism, it sounds to them like a liberal code,” Westen told Politico in 2010. In a later study for the Center for Social Inclusion, Westen confirmed that saying “illegal immigrant” was key to convincing white people to support immigrant inclusion in health care reform and other policies. Democrats largely adopted this advice, but advocates have refused to do so, including Bhargava and Sharry, who is effectively ignoring the research he commissioned.
Yet, Westen is not wrong. People do use “illegal” automatically—precisely because it is so ubiquitous, having been made so by Frank Luntz’s strategy. To win in the short term, one has to find a way to get into what’s called the audience’s circle of concern—or, that group of people that viewers, readers, listeners and voters are willing to protect. The circle of concern is entirely shaped by our subjective and mostly unconscious thoughts about who belongs and who doesn’t, which are in turn triggered by the constant repetition of frames like law-and-order. Getting in the circle is less likely if you signal that you’re talking about outsiders from the start. This is why Westen tells immigration reform advocates that they can avoid “illegal” if they want, but they should be prepared to deal with less support. Entirely correct, in the short term.
Winning in the long term, though, requires getting people to think of the “other” as being inside their circles. That is entirely possible to do, as the abolition, civil rights, feminist, sexual liberation and many other movements have proven. But it takes a complement of cultural interventions alongside the political ones, advanced over five, 10, even 30 years. The cultural project has to establish the stories, images, and archetypes that prime a person to expand rather than shrink the circle of concern. That project requires us to deal with how race is lived in America, not just how it is legislated.
A Different Kind of Organizing
Storytelling is central to a cultural strategy. Ever since linguist George Lakoff gave the Democrats hell for losing the 2004 presidential election by talking technicalities instead of values, politicos apply the word “narrative” to everything from policy platforms to budget proposals. But real narratives are dynamic, with characters, settings and actions that move things along. Storytelling has its own structural demands—a protagonist that isn’t an organization, an antagonist that will turn out to be wrong in the end, a conflict that creates obstacles the protagonist must overcome. Most political messages, even if they describe a problem in some detail, don’t reach storytelling standards because they lack these other elements.
As Lakoff writes, the human brain holds competing worldviews, known as frames, that are shaped by thousands of years of repetition. A person’s dominant frame might be “bootstraps” because that’s what she heard the most growing up. But “love thy neighbor” is in there somewhere, too. Numbers and facts can’t trigger “love thy neighbor,” but stories can.
In his book “The Storytelling Animal,” Jonathan Gottschall notes that our brains engaged in story take us through the protagonist’s reactions. We flinch when the serial killer jumps out and cry when the heroine’s father dies. Gotschall writes that, “when we experience a story—whether it is in a book, a film, or a song—we allow ourselves to be invaded by the teller.” If this is true, then it’s hard to imagine any political movement succeeding without the strongest possible ability to tell stories. Tell the story first, and you get to frame the issue.
This might be the central difference between the DREAMers’ strategy and that of the traditional immigrant rights movement. Young, savvy with social media, and artistically inclined, DREAMers have compensated for their lack of political power by telling their stories in many forms and venues. The Trail of Dreams, the route from Florida to D.C. that four DREAMers walked in 2010, had characters and plot built in. They took on a heroic quest, encountered the Ku Klux Klan along the way and their completion of the journey reinforced what might be considered old-fashioned American perseverance.
Favianna Rodriguez is a printmaker and visual artist, a mentor of young undocumented artists and a founder ofCulture Strike, which brings together musicians, writers and artists to support immigrants. Rodriguez says that organizers initially saw artists as amplifiers of the message, but the messaging itself was often uninspiring (i.e., “states don’t have the right to set immigration policy”) or inconsistent. Artists knew that had to change. “Whatever work was produced, we had to think of it not as a communications track but on the track of changing people’s hearts,” said Rodriguez.
She was inspired by the DREAMers moving on from comprehensive immigration reform with the slogan Undocumented and Unafraid, and she has since hosted Undocunation and numerous other visual galleries featuring the work of young immigrants. Julio Salgado, a 29-year-old artist whose family came to the States from Mexico because his sister needed a kidney transplant and stayed because she would have died without ongoing treatment, produced one of my favorite prints. It features a young immigrant saying, “My parents are responsible and loving and that’s why I’m here,” a much-needed counter to the bad parent, innocent child characterization that undergirds so many DREAM Act messages.
These artists, like Rodriguez, have fans who are in it for the art, taking the politics on the side. “People come and say I never knew DREAMers went through this, “said Rodriguez. “Not because they’re bigoted, just because of lack of information. They came for the way we were delivering the stories.”
In 2006, while Leo Morales was door-knocking a community on immigration reform in Canyon County, Idaho, he quickly discovered that people were either against it or afraid to engage in a public discussion. The Idaho Community Action Network had a 15-year history of bringing together white, Native and Latino working people to fight for policy changes of all sorts, but on this issue, they couldn’t get enough traction to do anything.
So they backed up a step. Through the Main Street Alliance, which provides small business owners an alternative to the Chamber of Commerce, ICAN members asked local businesses to put up a simple sign in their windows. “Immigration is an American tradition. Acceptance is an American value,” the sign read, under a picture of the Statue of Liberty. A year later, ICAN started Welcoming Idaho and bought ads on bus benches and billboards. That’s unusual for a group whose go-to tactic is a raucous demonstration, but Morales said, “We had to do something different to lower the heat level and get people talking.”
Morales’ group is the Idaho chapter of Welcoming America, which started in Tennessee and went national in 2004. Their approach hinges on getting native-born and foreign-born Americans in direct contact with each other. The model is straightforward: local leaders declare themselves a welcoming committee, and host programs in which people can ask any kind of question without fear of judgment. Eventually, they may get local authorities to adopt a resolution declaring themselves a welcoming community. The groups use videos that spark conversation, as well as “Welcome to Shelbyville,” a documentary about Somalis and other immigrants in a small town near Nashville that aired on PBS.
“When someone sees a community changing with lots of new people in it, they can feel like ‘this isn’t my place anymore,’ ” says David Lubell, Welcoming Tennessee’s executive director. “You have to give people a chance to see the racial dynamic for themselves without beating them over the head with it. So they can see hey, we don’t have this kind of reaction to Russian immigrants.” Stories are key to that process, Lubell says, because if native-born people can hear an immigrant tell her story in a way that resonates with their own experience, then there’s an opening. In 2009, Nashville voters rejected an English-only ordinance; Welcoming America ran the cultural campaign to accompany the policy campaign led by others in that instance. Welcoming America now has 21 affiliates, including many in the South and West.
Drop the I-Word, Save the Kids
At the Applied Research Center, our recent interventions in the immigration discourse have been generated by stories and centralized stories in their strategy. The first is the Drop the I-word campaign, which urges residents, politicians and journalists to stop using the language of illegality in immigration. Second, our Shattered Families investigation exposed the permanent severing of family ties between parents who have been deported and children who are in the child welfare system.
In 2008, I traveled around promoting The Accidental American, my book about the founding of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. At Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, I kept seeing a young man walk back and forth behind the audience. When all the people had left, the young man made contact. He’d been browsing the architecture books and overheard our discussion. He’d graduated high school and wanted to be an architect but couldn’t afford college and couldn’t get a job. Should he turn himself in and ask for mercy? I still remember the way he whispered, “I’m illegal.”
We launched Drop the I-word in September 2010 with a video and pledge drive. Many immigrant rights activists ignored us, and we were certainly on the opposite end of Drew Westen’s approach. But when our microsite was shared 20,000 times on Facebook within 48 hours, an unprecedented response to an ARC release, we knew we were onto something. This was a story people wanted to tell and hear. We started with a series called “I Am…”—people without papers and their allies talking about how they define themselves and how they live with that word hanging over them. We’ve heard from students, activists, army wives, white fourth graders from Idaho, Native Americans, and numerous journalists who had decided to drop the i-word.
Last year, the Society of Professional Journalists adopted a resolution denouncing “illegal alien” and urging reporters to rethink “illegal immigrant,” too. When José Antonio Vargas came out as undocumented in the New York Times Magazine last year, his became the outlet’s most emailed story that week and “undocumented” trended on Twitter for a day. DREAMers have taken “undocumented,” a word Gloria Steinem told me would be a problem because it had no poetry, and used it to create UndocuNation and UndocuBus memes. New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz apologized for using “illegal” as the answer to the clue “One Caught by Border Patrol.” Shortz wrote, “At the time I wrote this clue … I had no idea that use of the word ‘illegal’ in this sense (as a noun) was controversial…It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and publications. Still, language changes, and I understand how the use of ‘illegal’ as a noun has taken on an offensive connotation.”
Also last year, we released the first-ever report on the interaction of child welfare, immigration and criminal justice systems, illuminating how the shaming device of “illegal” plays out. When these systems converge, it is astonishingly easy for parents to lose their parental rights because they cannot do the things required to get their kids back. We estimated, very conservatively, that some 5,000 children across the country are in danger of never seeing their detained or deported parents again. We hoped the report would fuel policy and practice changes, but we also wanted to disrupt the “they deserve what they get” message that dominates so much of the immigration debate. We framed the problem as a matter of what happens when we allow bias to replace all we know about what is best for children. The clearest evidence that the frame worked was the utter lack of pushback from conservative immigration organizations.
In the course of the projects, we broke the story of Felipe Montes and his family. Montes, father of three boys, was deported from Allegheny County, NC in 2010. He’d been the primary caretaker, financially and otherwise, so when his wife was unable to maintain the family without him, the kids were taken into the child welfare system. Child welfare soon stopped efforts to reunify the boys with their mother and moved to terminate Montes’s parental rights as well. Just before his family court hearing, which he couldn’t come back to to the U.S. to attend, Presente.org built a petition asking officials to reunify the family; 20,000 people signed it. The Mexican Consulate got involved; ICE granted Montes a rare parole to return for 90 days, and he’s been having substantial visits with his boys. The hearing is set for next week, and numerous press outlets are waiting to report on the outcome.
From DREAMers creating prints to journalists picking the right words, our storytelling skill is key to framing and reframing immigration issues. People who want real immigration reform can regain control of the debate by recasting the immigrant as agent rather than victim, and as human being rather than a robotic worker. We need to tell that person’s story everywhere and as often as possible. That’s our only chance—our best chance—at creating the public will required to make the vast policy changes immigrant communities need.