Picture This: How We Frame Issues Matters for Social Change
Picture This: How We Frame Issues Matters for Social Change
This multi-part series presented in partnership with The Communications Network, the FrameWorks Institute, and leading organizations explores how framing profoundly influences our understanding of social challenges, and how we think and talk about potential solutions.

In debates, on the campaign trail, and in conservative media outlets, opponents of progressive immigration policies frequently describe immigrants in the most negative possible light—as rapists, murderers, and gang members. Their aim is often to trigger panic about the perceived threat immigrants pose to the American public. They oppose policies such as pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and call for an end to so-called “chain migration,” a term appropriated from academia to stoke fears of an endless stream of immigrants overrunning the country, stealing jobs and opportunities from citizens. This rhetoric also plays on many Americans’ fear of terrorism, seeking to incite support for increased deportations and heightened border security, such as President Trump’s proposed wall between the United States and Mexico. Opponents persist despite ample evidence of immigrants’ contributions to the US economy and society, and the economic benefits of proposed progressive legislation.  

Language that defines immigrants as “others” frequently dominates public discourse around immigration and immigrants. It casts immigrants outside of the American “tribe” and creates the impression that they are unworthy of public support. It also conflates lawfully present immigrants with those who are undocumented, effectively painting all immigrants with a broad brushstroke of illegality.

In fact, framing immigrants as “others” has infiltrated the US national dialogue and seeped into the country’s collective consciousness, so much so that even progressive politicians often use it without realizing its toxic effects. When Bernie Sanders urged undocumented immigrants to come “out of the shadows” during the 2016 primary campaign, for example, he unknowingly evoked metaphorical language that equates immigrants with dark, hidden places where criminals might reside.

(Image courtesy of iStock)

Research conducted by the FrameWorks Institute shows that this language depresses support for progressive immigration reforms, such as removing obstacles for immigrants with “temporary protected status” to become lawful permanent residents and streamlining the asylum process so that asylum seekers are not left in legal limbo for years at a time. Pro-immigration advocates often talk enthusiastically about a “majority minority” America in which whites are no longer the principal racial and ethnic group. They do not see that, for many Americans, this frame cues anxiety about demographic change, as well as fear and resentment of others. Historically, some pro-immigration advocates praised Asian immigrants as a “model minority”—a frame that pitted Asians against both other immigrants and native-born Americans in a metaphorical battle for jobs and scarce economic resources.

At the same time, pro-immigration advocates refer to America as a “nation of immigrants”—a frame that takes a more inclusive approach, positioning immigrants as part of a collective “we” and a vital part of “our” society. The idea that immigrants are like “us” and are part of the American societal fabric not only underlies vast public support for progressive immigration reform, but also promotes support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Indeed, social science research suggests that Americans are more likely to back policies that support undocumented immigrants if we see them as members of our “tribe” or our “in-group.”

Nevertheless, the “other” frame has been a dominant part of our political discourse for some time. In the 1880s, anti-immigrant advocates called Chinese people a “yellow peril” bent on kidnapping white women. This strategy boosted support for laws that blocked Asians from immigrating to the United States and Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens. Many times since then, anti-immigration advocates have used similar frames to curb immigration from certain parts of the world, to expedite deportations, and to restrict immigrants’ access to certain federal and state benefits.

Anti-immigration advocates continue to use the “other” frame, but recent elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, where Republicans unsuccessfully used anti-immigrant rhetoric to rally voters, indicate that people may be growing tired of such heavy doses of the “immigrant as other” framing. The narrative may be at a tipping point, alienating more voters than it attracts.

Shared humanity

Luckily, there are powerful ways of tapping into positive thinking about immigrants and America. Advocates for progressive immigration reform can counter the “other” frame by highlighting the important role immigrants have played in our country, our common humanity, and our shared values.

The “nation of immigrants” frame signifies that immigrants built the foundations of the United States and make it unique. This frame shares its name with the eponymous book written by John F. Kennedy, who, as a US senator, wrote the book as a “paean to the importance of immigrants to our nation’s prominence and success.” United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency charged with administering the lawful immigration system, used this frame to describe its work until earlier this year, when it struck the words “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.

The morality frame, meanwhile, takes a humanitarian stance. This frame is etched into a poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which famously reads: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” These words, by poet Emma Lazarus, served as the symbolic backdrop when President Johnson signed landmark legislation in 1965, overhauling immigration policy and ushering in a more progressive era.

Most Americans—including many who oppose progressive immigration reform—also share the belief that “people are people,” regardless of where they are born. In this view, immigrants are just like other Americans, working hard for a better future for themselves and their families. President Obama tapped into this frame when he declared that undocumented children who arrived in the United States in their youth—the “Dreamers”—“are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper.” Today, many mayors are using the term “sanctuary cities” to clarify and codify the belief that immigrants, regardless of their lawful or undocumented status, are members of American communities whose trust of and cooperation with law enforcement is essential to community safety.

All Americans are capable of thinking in terms of both “us versus them” and “we.” Both frames are deeply embedded in the country’s collective consciousness. Pro-immigration advocates can activate them to guide thinking about immigration and support specific solutions. The task is framing immigration in ways that pull “we” perspectives to the forefront of Americans’ minds, while simultaneously pushing “immigrant as other” to the back. Instead of writing off the portions of the American public who oppose progressive immigration reform, advocates need messages that help everyone remember and believe in a common identity and shared humanity.

We have seen the success of this approach recently. In 2017, two Texas advocacy groups—One Voice Central Texas and Immigrant Services Network of Austin—authored a joint statement explaining the statewide consequences of withholding public funding from localities that choose to set their own law enforcement priorities regarding undocumented immigrants. The commentary, published in the Austin American-Statesman, uses inclusive language, appeals to the value of respecting our shared humanity and applies other recommendations from FrameWorks’ research. After the commentary ran, the City of Austin increased funding to support legal counseling and services for immigrants.

Shared prosperity

FrameWorks’ research shows that framing immigration around our shared prosperity also moves Americans of all demographic backgrounds and political leanings to support sensible immigration reform. This strategy moves public thinking toward support for progressive immigration reform by explaining why this issue is economically beneficial to everyone, how it works, and what we can do about it as a country.

The full “shared prosperity” narrative first uses a moral argument to help people see immigrants as regular, hardworking people, and explain why reform is so important. Specifically, the morality frame establishes that we have a moral obligation to respect human dignity. Second, the narrative explains how immigration contributes to our shared prosperity—whether by expanding the tax base or attracting talent to important industries—and helps people see the need for immigration reform. Finally, the narrative offers specific solutions to fix the system’s current deficits, nurtures belief in the possibility of change, and drives collective action to improve outcomes.

Immigration and refugee organizations have applied this framing strategy to their communications in recent years. One case in point is Welcoming America, a network of communities across the nation that are committed to supporting immigrants. The organization is has put this value to work in its communications materials, declaring: “Our shared prosperity relies on the innovation and creativity of people who come from all over the world, all walks of life, and all faiths and cultural traditions.”

Pro-immigration advocates should also avoid a set of framing practices. As we noted above, talk about bringing immigrants “out of the shadows” and the need to support “worthy” immigrants are counterproductive. And they should avoid isolated stories about individual immigrants and instead lean toward stories that put immigrants in a larger social context, showing how systems and policies affect and are affected by them. These wider-angle stories clarify the need for a better system rather than encouraging Americans to evaluate whether individual immigrants deserve support.

United for change

Frames work best in high and sustained doses. Pro-immigration advocates across sectors will enhance their effectiveness if they unite around these strategies, reevaluate their messaging, ensure their communications are framed around the moral argument, and employ the full narrative arc whenever possible. The more Americans gain exposure to “we” frames over a longer period of time, the more they will support progressive reforms and resist divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric.

America’s immigration history has always been divisive. But the framing contest between “we” and “us versus them,” between “all men are created equal” and “all immigrants are criminals,” does not have to continue. We can and must advance a narrative and tell stories that tie immigration to shared humanity, collective prosperity, and America’s distinct identity as a “nation of immigrants.” If we do, we can shift the tide, change our common culture, and come closer to a more united and perfect union.