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7 tips to change the conversation on immigration

Photo: Bryan Vana / AFSC

By Carly Goodman  

Do you ever find yourself in a difficult conversation with someone who has negative views about immigration? It can be a challenge. 

As communications analyst at AFSC, I try to understand how to talk about issues to shift opinions and move people to action. I help activists and advocates craft messages that work.   

Here are some evidence-based tips you can use to talk about immigration to build support for more inclusive communities and policies.  

1. Don’t repeat negative stereotypes, even to counter them.  

With so many hateful, false ideas out there, it’s important to counter these messages with the truth. But choose your words carefully. Studies show that repeating misinformation actually makes people more likely to believe it is true, doing more harm than good. So don’t myth-bust—always highlight the truth.  

2. Emphasize our shared humanity—immigrants are part of us.   

Immigrants are our friends, colleagues, family members, and neighbors—but anti-immigration ideas depend on the fiction that foreign-born people are threatening. When we recognize and affirm that immigrants are members of our communities, it becomes more difficult to support policies that deny people’s humanity. No matter where we were born, all of us deserve to feel safe from hatred.  

3. Most people move.  

Keep this in mind when talking to people who say they support immigration but are concerned about legal status. Migration is propelled by human desires to be with family, for economic improvement, and to seek safety. Seventy percent of Americans have moved from the county they were born in, so many can relate to moving, or having the freedom to move for a better life. Remember this phrase: “Immigrants are people who move to make life better for themselves and their families.”  

4. Don’t say the system is “broken”—call for a humane immigration process.  

Calling to reform a “broken” immigration system can make people feel helpless and even fatalistic—like there’s nothing that can fix it. Instead of focusing on problems with the current system, talk about what we need in an updated system. Today, there are very few ways for many long-term members of our communities to gain permanent resident status or citizenship—there is no “line” to get into. We need an immigration process that creates a roadmap to citizenship for all immigrants.  

5. All people have rights.  

Many of us have used the phrase “No human being is illegal.” But research has shown that this language doesn’t persuade people who don’t already agree with the idea. It’s better not to use the word “illegal” at all, because it has been used to dehumanize people and is now strongly associated with unauthorized immigration. Instead, say “All people have rights.”  

6. Chains don’t migrate—people do, families do.  

The Trump administration has castigated family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents as so-called “chain migrants.” The phrase seeks to erase the humanity of immigrants and suggests that the system is out of control, so I recommend not repeating it. Calling this process “family immigration” will remind people that family unification is the bedrock of the immigration system. Most people believe that the system should keep families together, not tear them apart.  

7. Be truthful and critical about our complex history.   

Our country has often welcomed immigrants and benefited from cultural diversity. We often say that we are a “nation of immigrants”—however, this isn’t the whole story. We must remember our country’s long history of excluding and punishing newcomers and people of color, and see how today’s attacks on immigrants are deeply rooted. Confronting the painful parts of our history, as well as lifting up stories about communities’ resilience and resistance to racism and exclusion, can help us build support for more humane and inclusive policies going forward.  ■

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