3 Lessons for Changing the Conversation About Immigration

As the 2016 presidential campaign heated up in the summer of 2015, immigration issues quickly made their way onto the front burner. Hillary Clinton promised to go further than President Barack Obama in pursuing comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Donald Trump, meanwhile, stole headlines with offensive remarks about immigrants from Mexico.

When these issues are in the news, advocates for immigration reform can help shape the political and policy debate. The Hattaway team worked with a coalition of organizations to change the conversation about immigration in 2014, as thousands of children were arriving at the southern U.S. border.

When these issues are in the news, advocates for immigration reform can help shape the political and policy debate. The Hattaway team worked with a coalition of organizations to change the conversation about immigration in 2014, as thousands of children were arriving at the southern U.S. border.

1. Focus on People, Not Process

The effort to change this conversation about unaccompanied children began with an analysis of the language Republicans and Democrats were using to talk about the situation.

Republicans delivered a clear narrative: The children came in response to Obama administration policies; the situation amounted to a crisis that required immediate attention; and the administration should ramp up efforts to turn away and deport the children ASAP. This narrative was clear in the language used by GOP lawmakers. The three most commonly used words were “border,” “crisis” and “Obama.”

Democrats, meanwhile, were stuck in a conversation about the legislative process. Their narrative shifted between the status of the children and the battle over a supplemental appropriations bill. Their quotes were full of process language like “law,” “legislation,” “bill,” “money,” “resources” and “Republicans.”

Polling, however, showed that framing the issue in process terms was a losing strategy. When asked how they’d prefer to deal with the situation, only 39 percent of Americans chose “following current policy, even if it could take a long time,” compared with 53 percent percent who wanted to “speed up the process, even if some children who are eligible for asylum are deported.”

But when asked to consider the human element, the tide shifted dramatically: 62 percent of Americans said the U.S. should “offer shelter and support” to the children, while only 33 percent wanted to “deport them immediately.”

Conversations about immigration can easily teeter-totter between the “system” and the people who are affected by it. In almost all cases, it’s wisest to avoid process arguments and stay focused on the human element of immigration.

2. Put People in the Picture the Right Way

Psychology tells us that the first thing we hear about a group or person will color our judgments about everything else we hear about them. That means it’s vital to describe people who are the subject of policy debates, like the one over immigration reform, in ways that encourage empathy. Sometimes, the words advocates use to describe people can do the opposite.

We noticed an inconsistency in the language advocates used to describe the children arriving at the U.S. border. More than 10 different labels were being used, including “unaccompanied minors,” “migrant children,” “Central American refugees,” “child refugees” and “children fleeing violence.” While these terms may seem interchangeable to those in the know, to the public they each tell a different story about who the children are and why they came to the U.S.

In focus groups we held with voters to discuss this issue, the word “refugee” frightened some people. It made the children sound particularly “foreign.” This led many to believe the children couldn’t assimilate, if they were allowed to stay in the country.

In testing different ways to describe the children, we found it best to keep the message simple and omit adjectives modifying the word “children.” On its own, that word created both sympathy and empathy. It led many voters to think of their own children—and to consider how they would want their loved ones treated in this situation.

Putting people in the picture is critical, but it must be done the right way. It’s important to be strategic about words used to describe people—and avoid language that creates “social distance” between different groups. Instead, focus on words that encourage empathy and create positive associations.

3. Invoke the Power of Family

One way to decrease the “social distance” between immigrants and American voters and to find common ground is to invoke a universally shared value: family. Our research on this conversation hit upon a simple fact that changed the game for many American voters: The majority of the children arriving at the border had family members living in the United States.

Family reunification was a powerful theme for two reasons. First, being together with one’s family is an aspiration shared across cultures. Anyone can understand and share a child’s desire to be reunited with his or her family.

Second, our focus groups revealed a concern that the children would place a burden on public resources. This concern was alleviated when voters heard that approximately 9 out of 10 of the children had family or sponsors waiting to take them in.

Describing immigrants as members of families seeking to join their loved ones can create empathy with them as individuals, while framing the goal of reform in terms that many Americans can understand and support.