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Framing immigration in a presidential debate without immigration policy

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Millions of people tuned in to watch the highly-anticipated first Presidential debate last night between Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald Trump. Viewers who wished to hear more about candidates’ immigration policy proposals in the first debate were left unsatisfied, however. Moderator Lester Holt did not ask a single question on the subject in the 90-minute debate, and no candidate discussed policies that would address problems that exist in our immigration system. The only mention of immigrants at all, in response to an unrelated question, characterized unauthorized immigrants as dangerous, violent criminals. Negative language linking immigrants to criminality has become familiar rhetoric in recent years. Such a frame not only perpetuates a falsehood – that immigrants are dangerous criminals – but research shows that such framing can have a negative effect on how the public perceives immigrants and immigration policies.

How we talk and write about immigrants and immigration influences how the public feels about the issue, which can affect the lives of millions of people. Indeed, a recent uptick in hate crimes has been associated by some with the increasingly stigmatizing language that has been a hallmark of this campaign season. The authors of a new study, Karthick Ramakrishnan, Jennifer Merolla and Chris Haynes, have shown that public opinion is persuadable on policies that affect immigrants. Instead of associating immigrants with violent crime, it would be helpful to reframe the issue to emphasize that immigrant rights are human rights and must be respected in order to create more inclusive communities. Some facts to reframe comments that dehumanize immigrants include:

  • No human being is illegal, and being in the United States in violation of immigration laws is not a crime.
  • Higher rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime. Between 1990 and 2013, as the foreign-born share of the U.S. population nearly doubled to 13.1 percent, including a three-fold increase in immigrants out of status, the rate of violent crime across the United States declined by 48 percent.
  • Immigrants are also less likely than native-born citizens to commit serious crimes, although they face higher doubled penalties for committing even minor crimes. When  convicted in the criminal justice system, immigrants pay for their misdeeds, and then pay again through immigration consequences for criminal charges. 
  • Regardless of status, immigrants deserve the same civil and human rights as all U.S. residents.

American Friends Service Committee has called for humane reforms that would end the detention and deportation of immigrants, ensure that families can stay together, and allow immigrants already living in our communities to apply for permanent residence and citizenship. In a recent poll, a majority of registered voters agreed with the idea that unauthorized immigrants should be able to apply for and received legal status and a path to citizenship.

In order to sustain support for humane reforms, we must reject negative frames that dehumanize immigrants, and call on candidates and the media to craft more positive, truthful frames for discussing immigrants and immigration. We will be watching the next debates hoping to hear candidates and moderators framing the issue of immigration using more positive, inclusive language, and speaking in more detail about specific policies and proposals. In the meantime, you can join AFSC in promoting immigrant rights by calling for the end of the immigration detention quota.

About the Author

Carly Goodman is a historian and served as the Communications Analyst and Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow at AFSC.