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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > USA: Immigrants Are Losing the Policy Fight. But That’s Beside the (...)

USA: Immigrants Are Losing the Policy Fight. But That’s Beside the Point

Wednesday 19 September 2012, by siawi3

by Rinku Sen
September 18, 2012


Like many others, I’ve worked for years to get Americans to
think expansively and compassionately about immigration. In a
decade dominated by the push for what’s been dubbed
“comprehensive immigration reform,” I’ve argued that
immigrants drive economic growth, pay taxes, add value to the
culture, and don’t take jobs from native-born people.
Although I wasn’t thrilled with the enforcement elements of
the policy - that fence, beefing up the Border Patrol,
growing detention and deportation - it seemed amazing that
Congress was even considering changing the status of as many
as 12 million undocumented people. Most of the immigrant
rights movement focused on winning that policy, and for a
time, it really seemed possible.

That was then. In the spring of 2007, the last decent bill
authored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy died in Congress.
There have been other bills since, each with more enforcement
and less legalization. President Obama’s election seemed a
hopeful sign, but he refused to move forward without
Republicans and then deported record numbers. The moderate
Republican on this issue has become scarce; by 2011, even
McCain was claiming that border crossers had started
wildfires in the Arizona desert. Democrats too have moved to
the right, adopting harsher language and stressing
enforcement. The immigrant rights movement, for all its
vibrancy and depth, has been losing the policy fight.

That’s because the movement has also been losing the
profoundly racialized cultural fight over the nation’s
identity, limiting our ability to frame the debate.

I watch lots of TV, where Hollywood tells the same story
again and again: beleaguered Americans and their law
enforcers confront hordes of “criminal aliens” rushing our
borders. As a cultural event, September 11 became a gift to
xenophobes, giving the show “24” its reason for being, and
helping to make South Asians, Arabs and Muslims subjects of
suspicion wherever they went. Battles over the building of
mosques have been carried out with epic heat in Murfreesboro,
TN., and New York City, during the same period that a Florida
preacher threatened to burn a Quran. These “swarthy”
communities have endured a relentless barrage of attacks,
long predating the August massacre at a gurdwara in Oak
Creek, Wisc.

Reality TV has been inspired by immigration enforcement.
Sherriff Joe Arpaio, who at age 80 doesn’t seem done winning
elections in Maricopa County, Ariz., had a three-episode
pilot on the Fox Reality Channel. “Border Wars,” "Law on the
Border,“”Homeland Security USA,“and”Border Battles," all
aired on channels like National Geographic and Animal Planet.
It was exciting to see a meaningful storyline about an
undocumented father on “Ugly Betty,” but that was hardly
enough to compete with the volume of material glorifying the
other perspective.

The image of the unwanted, unscrupulous, immoral immigrant
permeates television, talk radio, and movie screens, yet pro-
immigrant organizations have largely neglected even to pick a
cultural fight, until recently. That fact has started to
change since 2007, as the movement took up a cultural
strategy to tell the modern immigrant’s story in as many ways
as we can find.

DREAMers - the youth who have advocated for and come to embody
legislation that would provide a pathway to citizenship for
some people brought to the U.S. as children - are making art
and creating new words. Organizers are adding programs
designed simply to put native-born and immigrant Americans in
contact. Documentary and fiction films about undocumented
people are finding audiences. And thousands of people are
raising questions about the language of “illegality” in
immigration talk. These are the activities that reframe the
debate by establishing immigrants as full human beings-not
just workers-who are exercising the core human urge to seek
brighter conditions.

If the death of hope on a comprehensive reform policy has a
positive spin, we can find it in the space that has opened up
for cultural work on the issue. Only the thoughtful
integration of these tactics with traditional policy pushes
can get us out of a period dominated by bad news for

The Roots of Failure

In 2005, the Minute Man Civil Defense Corps Project set up to
do what the federal government supposedly wouldn’t. Frank
Sharry, then director of the National Immigration Forum, sees
this event as a key volley in the culture war, noting the
massive press attention on Project founder Chris Simcox.

“Prior to this,” Sharry said, "racism in the anti-immigration
movement was latent but not activated. The Minute Man Civil
Defense Corps Project was a grassroots white nationalist
movement. Not that everyone who showed up was a white
nationalist, but the idea was to keep those brown people
out." Even Jim Gilchrist, the founder of a financial
investigation outfit The Minute Man Project, which targets
employers of undocumented workers, has spoken out against the
racist tone of vigilantes. He told the Atlantic that they
were “nothing but a bunch of skinheads.”

That same year, conservative communications guru Frank Luntz
wrote a strategy memo for restrictionists, stressing the
law-and-order frame. He instructed the movement to use
“illegal immigrant” always, but never “illegals” because the
noun was too dehumanizing and would drive away Latinos. The
Associated Press blessed that phrasing with its style book,
calling the adjective a neutral term while warning people
never to use the noun. All this parsing out of nouns and
adjectives indicates a great faith in the average American’s
knowledge of grammar, a faith that hasn’t been borne out by a
reality in which everyday people, pundits and politicians
regularly refer to immigrants as “illegals.”

Leaders of D.C.-based immigrant rights organizations are now
self critical about their slow response to a changing
climate. Deepak Bhargava, director of the Center for
Community Change, which maintains a national network of state
and local immigrant organizations, said, "Prior to ���07, and I
don’t consider myself innocent in this regard, there was a
squeamishness, an uncertainty, a tentativeness that people
projected about framing immigration in terms of the racial

Those people woke up after the fall of the McCain-Kennedy
bill. Republicans were clearly conflicted, with longtime
supporters like Sam Brownback turning tail, while Trent Lott,
of all people, berated his party for voting against reform
because of racism. "We were naïve enough to think we were in
a public policy fight," said Sharry, acknowledging that he
was directly criticized for years by colleagues who warned
him this was the inevitable outcome of a limited strategy.
"When even a right-leaning, back-room reform was defeated, it
showed the right was not interested in policy debate."

The question is, how does a society grapple with choices that
touch on our deepest racial divides?

In one intervention, the pro-immigrant movement exposed the
ties between restrictionist organizations and white
supremacists. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks
hate groups, documented the role of eugenicist John Tanton in
founding FAIR, Numbers USA and Center for Immigration
Studies-all crucial groups in the restrictionist movement.
Those connections have been well covered now in the
mainstream and independent press, yet it has had little
effect on the credibility of these organizations. There are
two reasons for that fact: Who sits on what board of
directors is of little concern to most people, and the
accusation of white supremacy is a blunt instrument in a
nuanced racial situation. As Bhargava put it, "You can’t just
call all the people who resist reform white supremacists and
be done with it."

By 2010, mainstream communications advice for immigrant
rights leaned toward giving Americans what they seemed to
want: tougher enforcement with a little compassion. The
cognitive psychologist Drew Westen released research in
partnership with America’s Voice, Sharry’s organization, and
the Center for American Progress that supported using
“illegal immigrant” to signal a tough stance on immigration.
Westen said the phrase opened up people who were ambivalent
about immigration to the idea of legalization. "When [voters]
hear ‘undocumented worker,’ they hear a liberal euphemism, it
sounds to them like a liberal code," Westen told Politico in
2010. In a later study for the Center for Social Inclusion,
Westen confirmed that saying “illegal immigrant” was key to
convincing white people to support immigrant inclusion in
health care reform and other policies. Democrats largely
adopted this advice, but advocates have refused to do so,
including Bhargava and Sharry, who is effectively ignoring
the research he commissioned.

Yet, Westen is not wrong. People do use “illegal”
automatically-precisely because it is so ubiquitous, having
been made so by Frank Luntz’s strategy. To win in the short
term, one has to find a way to get into what’s called the
audience’s circle of concern-or, that group of people that
viewers, readers, listeners and voters are willing to
protect. The circle of concern is entirely shaped by our
subjective and mostly unconscious thoughts about who belongs
and who doesn’t, which are in turn triggered by the constant
repetition of frames like law-and-order. Getting in the
circle is less likely if you signal that you’re talking about
outsiders from the start. This is why Westen tells
immigration reform advocates that they can avoid “illegal” if
they want, but they should be prepared to deal with less
support. Entirely correct, in the short term.

Winning in the long term, though, requires getting people to
think of the “other” as being inside their circles. That is
entirely possible to do, as the abolition, civil rights,
feminist, sexual liberation and many other movements have
proven. But it takes a complement of cultural interventions
alongside the political ones, advanced over five, 10, even 30
years. The cultural project has to establish the stories,
images, and archetypes that prime a person to expand rather
than shrink the circle of concern. That project requires us
to deal with how race is lived in America, not just how it is

A Different Kind of Organizing

Storytelling is central to a cultural strategy. Ever since
linguist George Lakoff gave the Democrats hell for losing the
2004 presidential election by talking technicalities instead
of values, politicos apply the word “narrative” to everything
from policy platforms to budget proposals. But real
narratives are dynamic, with characters, settings and actions
that move things along. Storytelling has its own structural
demands - a protagonist that isn’t an organization, an
antagonist that will turn out to be wrong in the end, a
conflict that creates obstacles the protagonist must
overcome. Most political messages, even if they describe a
problem in some detail, don’t reach storytelling standards
because they lack these other elements.

As Lakoff writes, the human brain holds competing worldviews,
known as frames, that are shaped by thousands of years of
repetition. A person’s dominant frame might be “bootstraps”
because that’s what she heard the most growing up. But "love
thy neighbor" is in there somewhere, too. Numbers and facts
can’t trigger “love thy neighbor,” but stories can.

In his book “The Storytelling Animal,” Jonathan Gottschall
notes that our brains engaged in story take us through the
protagonist’s reactions. We flinch when the serial killer
jumps out and cry when the heroine’s father dies. Gotschall
writes that, “when we experience a story”whether it is in a
book, a film, or a song"we allow ourselves to be invaded by
the teller." If this is true, then it’s hard to imagine any
political movement succeeding without the strongest possible
ability to tell stories. Tell the story first, and you get to
frame the issue.

This might be the central difference between the DREAMers’
strategy and that of the traditional immigrant rights
movement. Young, savvy with social media, and artistically
inclined, DREAMers have compensated for their lack of
political power by telling their stories in many forms and
venues. The Trail of Dreams, the route from Florida to D.C.
that four DREAMers walked in 2010, had characters and plot
built in. They took on a heroic quest, encountered the Ku
Klux Klan along the way and their completion of the journey
reinforced what might be considered old-fashioned American

Favianna Rodriguez is a printmaker and visual artist, a
mentor of young undocumented artists and a founder of Culture
Strike, which brings together musicians, writers and artists
to support immigrants. Rodriguez says that organizers
initially saw artists as amplifiers of the message, but the
messaging itself was often uninspiring (i.e., "states don’t
have the right to set immigration policy") or inconsistent.
Artists knew that had to change. "Whatever work was produced,
we had to think of it not as a communications track but on
the track of changing people’s hearts," said Rodriguez.

She was inspired by the DREAMers moving on from comprehensive
immigration reform with the slogan Undocumented and Unafraid,
and she has since hosted Undocunation and numerous other
visual galleries featuring the work of young immigrants.
Julio Salgado, a 29-year-old artist whose family came to the
States from Mexico because his sister needed a kidney
transplant and stayed because she would have died without
ongoing treatment, produced one of my favorite prints. It
features a young immigrant saying, "My parents are
responsible and loving and that’s why I’m here," a much-
needed counter to the bad parent, innocent child
characterization that undergirds so many DREAM Act messages.

These artists, like Rodriguez, have fans who are in it for
the art, taking the politics on the side. "People come and
say I never knew DREAMers went through this, “said Rodriguez.”Not because they’re bigoted, just because of lack of
information. They came for the way we were delivering the

In 2006, while Leo Morales was door-knocking a community on
immigration reform in Canyon County, Idaho, he quickly
discovered that people were either against it or afraid to
engage in a public discussion. The Idaho Community Action
Network had a 15-year history of bringing together white,
Native and Latino working people to fight for policy changes
of all sorts, but on this issue, they couldn’t get enough
traction to do anything.

So they backed up a step. Through the Main Street Alliance,
which provides small business owners an alternative to the
Chamber of Commerce, ICAN members asked local businesses to
put up a simple sign in their windows. "Immigration is an
American tradition. Acceptance is an American value," the
sign read, under a picture of the Statue of Liberty. A year
later, ICAN started Welcoming Idaho and bought ads on bus
benches and billboards. That’s unusual for a group whose go-
to tactic is a raucous demonstration, but Morales said, "We
had to do something different to lower the heat level and get
people talking."

Morales’ group is the Idaho chapter of Welcoming America,
which started in Tennessee and went national in 2004. Their
approach hinges on getting native-born and foreign-born
Americans in direct contact with each other. The model is
straightforward: local leaders declare themselves a
welcoming committee, and host programs in which people can
ask any kind of question without fear of judgment.
Eventually, they may get local authorities to adopt a
resolution declaring themselves a welcoming community. The
groups use videos that spark conversation, as well as
“Welcome to Shelbyville,” a documentary about Somalis and
other immigrants in a small town near Nashville that aired
on PBS.

"When someone sees a community changing with lots of new
people in it, they can feel like ‘this isn’t my place
anymore,’ " says David Lubell, Welcoming Tennessee’s
executive director. "You have to give people a chance to see
the racial dynamic for themselves without beating them over
the head with it. So they can see hey, we don’t have this
kind of reaction to Russian immigrants." Stories are key to
that process, Lubell says, because if native-born people can
hear an immigrant tell her story in a way that resonates with
their own experience, then there’s an opening. In 2009,
Nashville voters rejected an English-only ordinance;
Welcoming America ran the cultural campaign to accompany the
policy campaign led by others in that instance. Welcoming
America now has 21 affiliates, including many in the South
and West.

Drop the I-Word, Save the Kids

At the Applied Research Center, our recent interventions in
the immigration discourse have been generated by stories and
centralized stories in their strategy. The first is the Drop
the I-word campaign, which urges residents, politicians and
journalists to stop using the language of illegality in
immigration. Second, our Shattered Families investigation
exposed the permanent severing of family ties between parents
who have been deported and children who are in the child
welfare system.

In 2008, I traveled around promoting The Accidental American,
my book about the founding of the Restaurant Opportunities
Center of New York. At Powell’s Books in Portland, OR, I kept
seeing a young man walk back and forth behind the audience.
When all the people had left, the young man made contact.
He’d been browsing the architecture books and overheard our
discussion. He’d graduated high school and wanted to be an
architect but couldn’t afford college and couldn’t get a job.
Should he turn himself in and ask for mercy? I still remember
the way he whispered, “I’m illegal.”

We launched Drop the I-word in September 2010 with a video
and pledge drive. Many immigrant rights activists ignored us,
and we were certainly on the opposite end of Drew Westen’s
approach. But when our microsite was shared 20,000 times on
Facebook within 48 hours, an unprecedented response to an ARC
release, we knew we were onto something. This was a story
people wanted to tell and hear. We started with a series
called "I Am...- people without papers and their allies
talking about how they define themselves and how they live
with that word hanging over them. We’ve heard from students,
activists, army wives, white fourth graders from Idaho,
Native Americans, and numerous journalists who had decided to
drop the i-word.

Last year, the Society of Professional Journalists adopted a
resolution denouncing “illegal alien” and urging reporters to
rethink “illegal immigrant,” too. When José Antonio Vargas
came out as undocumented in the New York Times Magazine last
year, his became the outlet’s most emailed story that week
and “undocumented” trended on Twitter for a day. DREAMers
have taken “undocumented,” a word Gloria Steinem told me
would be a problem because it had no poetry, and used it to
create UndocuNation and UndocuBus memes. New York Times
crossword editor Will Shortz apologized for using “illegal”
as the answer to the clue “One Caught by Border Patrol.”
Shortz wrote, "At the time I wrote this clue - I had no idea
that use of the word ‘illegal’ in this sense (as a noun) was
controversial –It’s in widespread use by ordinary people and
publications. Still, language changes, and I understand how
the use of ‘illegal’ as a noun has taken on an offensive

Also last year, we released the first-ever report on the
interaction of child welfare, immigration and criminal
justice systems, illuminating how the shaming device of
“illegal” plays out. When these systems converge, it is
astonishingly easy for parents to lose their parental rights
because they cannot do the things required to get their kids
back. We estimated, very conservatively, that some 5,000
children across the country are in danger of never seeing
their detained or deported parents again. We hoped the report
would fuel policy and practice changes, but we also wanted to
disrupt the “they deserve what they get” message that
dominates so much of the immigration debate. We framed the
problem as a matter of what happens when we allow bias to
replace all we know about what is best for children. The
clearest evidence that the frame worked was the utter lack of
pushback from conservative immigration organizations.

In the course of the projects, we broke the story of Felipe
Montes and his family. Montes, father of three boys, was
deported from Allegheny County, NC in 2010. He’d been the
primary caretaker, financially and otherwise, so when his
wife was unable to maintain the family without him, the kids
were taken into the child welfare system. Child welfare soon
stopped efforts to reunify the boys with their mother and
moved to terminate Montes’s parental rights as well. Just
before his family court hearing, which he couldn’t come back
to to the U.S. to attend, built a petition
asking officials to reunify the family; 20,000 people signed
it. The Mexican Consulate got involved; ICE granted Montes a
rare parole to return for 90 days, and he’s been having
substantial visits with his boys. The hearing is set for next
week, and numerous press outlets are waiting to report on the

Rinku Sen is the President and Executive Director of the
Applied Research Center (ARC) and Publisher of