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 immigrants.
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 debate.”
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 legislated.
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 perseverance.
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 stories.”
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 st