Talking Immigration Issues: Narrative, Messaging and Research

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The immigrants’ rights movement today faces major challenges. The last two years have seen a rash of anti-immigrant laws proposed and enacted around the country; a federal and multi-state assault on the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; problematic federal-state enforcement partnerships which have led to record-high rates of deportation; rogue enforcement operations such as those by Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona; and the failure of Congress to enact either comprehensive reform or even more limited measures, such as the DREAM Act, to fix our flawed immigration policies.

Over the same period, there have been some positive developments. The Obama administration announced that it would not seek to deport undocumented college students and certain other categories of immigrants. California passed a cluster of positive immigrant integration laws including the California Dream Act, which allows undocumented students to access state and private financial aid for college; a law prohibiting cities from requiring business owners to use the inaccurate and controversial E-Verify system for checking the immigration status of employees; and a law that prohibits the impounding of cars at checkpoints solely because a driver is unlicensed. Immigrant groups in Nebraska have so far defeated anti-immigrant state proposals and introduced a positive integration bill.

The coming years will continue to present critical opportunities to reframe the debate on immigrant inclusion, to inform policy discourse, and to build the effectiveness of immigrants’ civic engagement, communications, and advocacy. This period is expected to include candidates’ debates in advance of national, state, and local elections; a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of S.B. 1070, Arizona’s anti-immigrant law; numerous policy discussions; and volumes of media discourse, town halls, and other conversations connected to immigrant integration.

The federal government’s failure to pass reform legislation has shifted the debate to the states and has necessarily led the immigrants’ rights movement to focus on issues of due process and discrimination. Racial profiling, exclusion from public programs and services, and detention and deportation without due process have become paramount concerns. To date, laws mirroring the repressive law adopted in Arizona have been enacted in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, and thus far, litigation by both immigrants’ rights advocates and the U.S. Justice Department has prevented the most egregious sections of these laws from being implemented. On April 25, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the Arizona case and is expected to announce its ruling by the end of June.

As the public debate around immigration evolves, it is crucial to adapt our overarching narrative to the changing dynamics of the public discourse. In order to meet this communications challenge, The Opportunity Agenda, in close consultation with its partners, undertook a set of research projects in 2011 designed to deepen our collective understanding of how the public is grappling with the network of issues surrounding immigrant integration and immigration policy.

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