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Six ways to change how you talk about immigration

Media Uncovered  |  By Carly Goodman, Aug 25, 2017

On the morning of May 31, Juana Tobar Ortega announced that she was taking sanctuary in a Greensboro church. She was accompanied by her family (including her granddaughter, pictured) and supporters, including AFSC. Juana is believed to be the first recent sanctuary case in North Carolina.

Photo: AFSC / Betsy Blake, www.betsyblake.com

Communications researchers have put together a powerful new toolkit on framing immigration issues to reach what they call the "persuadable audience" – that is, people who do not feel strongly one way or another about immigration. Their research shows that certain words and ideas connect with audiences far better than others. And the more we use effective frames, the more effective we will be at changing the narrative around immigration.

Check out the full report for more detailed findings and tips. Here are some key takeaways to get started: 

1.  People move.

A “rule of law” framework has defined the immigration debate since the 1980s, and it has been difficult for immigration advocates to counter. It is a losing narrative. Instead, talk about immigration in terms of moving. Seventy percent of Americans have moved from the county they were born in, so many people can relate to moving, or having the freedom to move. Who are immigrants? Immigrants are people who move to make life better for themselves and their families.

2.  Create an immigration process.

Calling for reforms to immigration makes it sound like immigration is a problem to be solved. This framework helps opponents of immigration by casting immigrants as a problem. Instead, use language that identifies the humane solution. Experts know that there is no “line” for immigrants to get into. So we need to create an immigration process that does not yet exist – and should.

3. Check your metaphors: A nation is not a house.

Most people understand politics through metaphors. One persistent metaphor imagines that the country is like a house: It has a door, a gate, and an owner who can welcome people in or keep people out. This tends to make people think that those that enter without permission are committing a crime, which lowers support for humane immigration policy. Instead, research suggests using the metaphor of the nation as a body. Use language like “backbone of this country” or “vital to the nation” instead.

4. Create a roadmap to citizenship.

Polls show that most people think there should be a path to citizenship for immigrants without status. Researchers suggest calling this a “roadmap” rather than a “path.” A path sounds like something animals follow in a forest, whereas a roadmap is something people use.

5. Pivot when necessary.

Powerful anti-immigrant frames define much of the debate, and it can be difficult to counter them because they are so deeply ingrained. Once a problematic frame is invoked, facts lose some of their power. For example, discussing immigration and the economy tends to evoke a connection between immigrants and economic anxiety. Although there is copious evidence that immigrants’ contributions help the economy, these facts do not tend to convince listeners. What’s worse, they can reinforce the idea that immigrants are separate from and not part of American communities. Instead of arguing about immigrants and the economy, talk about the dignity of work and highlight everybody’s contributions to our communities.

6. All people have rights.

We all know the phrase “no human is illegal.” But researchers found that this language didn’t always convince the persuadable middle. Advocates should avoid using the word “illegal” because it has been used to dehumanize people. Instead, underscore our shared humanity: All people have rights.

Thanks to America’s Voice, The Opportunity Agenda, ASO Communications, and Lake Research Partners for providing these research-backed tips for immigration messaging!

Check out our previous immigration messaging tips here.

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