Immigrants' Rights Messaging


The best messaging for immigration advocates was created by the New Immigration Messaging Project. This section relies on that research and part of their advice is reprinted verbatim. When state and local officials and candidates address public policy involving immigrants, it is usually not a discussion of federal immigration reform. Rather, the conversation tends to begin when a constituent asks what can be done about “illegal” immigrants. 

Say . . .

America deserves a commonsense immigration process that reflects the American values of freedom, opportunity and security. The current patchwork of immigration policies and programs is broken; everyone knows that we are never going to deport millions of people. So both Democrats and Republicans recognize that the practical way forward is to create an immigration process that is based on our fundamental values and includes a roadmap for new Americans who aspire to be citizens. Members of Congress are working on creating such a process and I support that effort. 

Why . . .

Right wing advocates want to make this debate about upholding the rule of law: “But they broke the law!” they will say. If these are the terms of debate, you will lose; it strongly suggests the solution is to treat immigrants as criminals. You must move the conversation to our nation’s broken patchwork of immigration policies.

It is fairly easy to empathize with voters on immigrant-related issues—they think the current system is a wreck and that “America deserves a commonsense immigration process.” The values of “freedom, opportunity and security” are extremely popular and wholly applicable to this issue.

The difficult part is getting some of the persuadable voters past their existing feelings about illegalimmigrants. Depending on how it’s asked, as many as 40 percent of voters believe that “illegal immigrants” should be deported. You cannot change the minds of those voters about what shouldhappen—that’s why you raise the obvious point that mass deportations are never going to happen. Persuadable voters recognize that fact; that’s why they generally support reforms that end in citizenship. The suggested language “everyone knows” may not be literally accurate, but it is an effective device that helps move your audience from an emotional to a practical point of view. The rest of the suggested narrative takes advantage of the fairly well-known effort at the federal level. State and local officials can’t fix the broken process, only federal officials can.

Nothing you say is going to sway the right wing base. In a one-on-one conversation, it is futile to keep arguing with an anti-immigrant stalwart. But if persuadable voters are watching you debate the issue, you may need to reemphasize the deportation argument. 

Say . . .

Due to years of gridlock in Washington, the immigration system is a mess. It’s time to stop playing politics and focus on creating a commonsense immigration process that puts our values first and moves us forward. No reasonable person believes we can deport all immigrants living here—especially since it would take decades and cost many millions of dollars. We have the chance in Congress, right now, to break the gridlock and create an immigration process that is both realistic and fair to everyone. That’s what we must do. 

It is important to move the conversation from individual immigrants to the immigration process so that new immigrants are not unjustly portrayed as bad people, criminals or second-class citizens. The narratives above make a number of word choices that require explanation. 

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Illegal aliens

Illegal immigrants

Undocumented immigrants

new American immigrants

new Americans

Aspiring citizens

Why . . .

Don’t say aliens because that implies they are different from us, which is both inaccurate and offensive. Don’t say illegal because it suggests that such people are criminals deserving of punishment, which is false. Undocumented has been thoroughly tested and, unfortunately, does not work. If you have to be more specific, you might say “immigrants who are not authorized to be here.” On the positive side, “new American immigrants,” “new Americans” and people who “aspire to be citizens” are poll-tested and move the conversation in a productive direction. 

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Reform the immigration system

Pathway to citizenship

Immigrants pay taxes

Create an immigration process

Roadmap to citizenship

Immigrants contribute to America 

Why . . .

Don’t say “reform the system” because that implies the current system provides a solution when, in fact, there is no line to get into. Say instead that we need to “create a process,” which suggests no process currently exists. Pathway doesn’t work as well as roadmap. And persuadable voters don’t believe immigrants pay taxes so don’t waste your time trying to educate them—they do believe that “immigrants contribute to America” so say that instead.

Americans are not inclined to give anything to immigrants, but at the same time, they generally don’t want to deny rights or necessities. So frame your arguments accordingly. For example, if you are arguing for a state DREAM Act to allow the children of new American immigrants to be eligible for in-state tuition rates: 

Say . . .

We should reward hard work and responsibility. When young aspiring Americans graduate from a local high school after they have lived here for years and stayed out of trouble, we should not deny them access to college tuition rates that are available to all their graduating classmates.  Education is the cornerstone of our democracy and our economy, so when we enable young people to go to college we all reap the benefit. 

Or if you are arguing to allow immigrants access to driver’s licenses: 

Say . . .

The laws about driving on our highways should be designed to make us all safer. So it doesn’t make sense to deny new American immigrants the ability to get a driver’s license. We should want them licensed to ensure that every driver on the road is trained, tested and covered by insurance. It’s a policy that benefits all of us. 

The following answers to right wing arguments come verbatim from the New Immigration Messaging Project, a collaboration of America’s Voice Education Fund, Lake Research Partners, ASO Communications and The Opportunity Agenda.

Right wing argument: Immigrants are not real Americans. 

Say . . .

It’s not what you look like or where you were born that makes you American—it’s how you live your life and what you do that defines you here in this country. How we treat new Americans reflects our commitment to the values that define us as Americans. We believe that families should stick together, that we should look out for each other and that hard work should be rewarded. No matter where you are from, what makes you American is your commitment to the country we call home. 

Right wing argument: Immigrants steal our jobs, drain public services and don’t pay taxes. 

Say . . .

All types of immigrants, regardless of how they came here, contribute to our culture and economy. As Americans, we all do our part to contribute, and we’re all better for having hardworking new immigrants as contributing members of our communities by being customers in our stores, paying payroll taxes and giving to local churches and charities. People around the world have moved here throughout history to work hard in order to make life better for the next generation, and the constant revitalization of the American spirit—bringing new energy, new cultures and new ideas here—makes us strong as a country. 

Right wing argument: Immigrants don’t have rights. 

Say . . .

All men and women are created equal. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all people have rights, no matter what they look like or where they came from. In every generation, we’ve had brave individuals who choose to defend liberty and justice for all—no exceptions. Whether motivated by a sense of justice or a moral belief, the land of the free is always moved forward by brave people of good conscience standing on the correct side of history. 

Right wing argument: Immigrants should come here the right way or not at all. 

Say . . .

Everyone agrees that the current patchwork of policies and programs is broken, and it breaks up families. For those currently striving for citizenship, there’s often no line to get into for becoming a fully participating American. For aspiring citizens, the essential rights of citizenship should be attainable by taking a test of our history and government, paying an appropriate fee and pledging allegiance to our country. In order to do our part to welcome newcomers, we need to make America the most attractive place for the best, brightest and the hardest working people from around the world. That’s why America deserves a commonsense immigration process, one that includes a roadmap for new Americans who aspire to be citizens.

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