Talking About The U.S. Border: Imprisoned Children, Lost Parents, and Separated Families

Updated October 2020

The administration’s willful separation of children from their parents at the Southern U.S. border is an atrocious violation of human rights and dignity, and part of a broader pattern of cruel, biased, and destructive border and immigration policies. The horror of watching our government press criminal charges against adult asylum seekers while at the same time pulling their children from them for imprisonment in cages captured  national attention two years ago. Now the damage and trauma has been solidified for more than 500 immigrant children whose parents our government can’t locate. In this moment of national reckoning, we must acknowledge the distress and disgust we are feeling and channel this anger into action through voting, organizing, and working with immigration rights allies to make sure this never happens again.

Making sure that the narrative on immigrants is centered on the values of dignity, safety, mobility, and human rights is also crucial. Based on consultation with our partners in the border region, our assessment of the evolving media discourse, and available public opinion research, we recommend framing and discussing the administration’s actions and the alternatives in ways that lead to activation as well as persuasion. We recommend lifting up our shared values as a nation, making clear how the separation and incarceration of children is part of a broad approach and ideology that violates those values, and providing specific alternatives and actions that our audiences can take and policymakers must pursue.

The Opportunity Agenda reminds communicators to consider your audience(s) and build messages using a Value, Problem, Solution, Action (VPSA) framework. We know that doing so helps persuade people of disparate views to see past rhetoric and embrace our shared humanity.  It centers the conversation on positive change that moves us forward together. That’s especially important in this case, allowing the conversation to focus not on disagreements over policy detail or past administrations, but on action and the values we share.

State these values clearly, then move to defining the problem as a violation of those principles and pivot quickly to solutions, both short- and longer-term. Finally, give your audiences a concrete action so that they can move on their concern right away.

Below are some examples of VPSA messaging around the border and what to do about it.


This is about who we are as a country – our national heart and soul. It is also about the children themselves and ensuring their safety and security. The United States must be a compassionate nation that protects children, respects the value of family, and upholds the dignity of all people, wherever they come from.

What I saw today is simply not who, we, as a country should be. This is cruel and inhumane treatment and we cannot allow it to continue on our watch.

– Rep. Pramila Jayapal, (D) Washington

Americans pride ourselves on being a moral nation, on being the nation that sends humanitarian relief to places devastated by natural disasters or famine or war. We pride ourselves on believing that people should be seen for the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We pride ourselves on acceptance. If we are truly that country, then it is our obligation to reunite these detained children with their parents – and to stop separating parents and children in the first place.

– Former First Lady Laura Bush


Holding children hostage for political gain is morally reprehensible and a dark atrocity that we cannot tolerate. What has been less focused on is that while this is happening, the administration is criminally prosecuting the parents of these children, who face up to 20 years in prison for seeking refuge and a better life for their families in the United States.

Separating immigrant parents and children as a supposed deterrent to immigration is a cruel and reprehensible policy. Children are not instruments of deterrence, they are children. A government that thinks any means is suitable to achieve an end cannot secure justice for anyone.

– Bishop Daniel E. Flores, Diocese of Brownsville, TX

If you think about what the Republican Party has stood for, it’s family values and protecting children, so it seems contradictory that they’re engaging in this enforcement activity of ripping kids from their families. It’s really troubling to see that an administration can be so callous. It’s beyond the pale.

– Vicki Gaubeca, Director of the ACLU of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights

The staggering inhumanity of this president’s treatment of these children belongs in the darkest chapters of our nation’s history—the ones we can never forget and must never repeat.

-Senator Patty Murray (D-Wa)


Tearing children from families fleeing harm is part of a larger pattern by this administration of bigotry and cruelty toward people based on their skin color, religion, and national origin. It is also part and parcel of the administration’s return to flawed over-reliance on incarceration and criminalization. This assault on our values harms not just the families and children at the border, but all of us watching. It is also a stark reminder of the history of discrimination and internment based on race and ethnicity that we must rise above rather than repeat.

Zero tolerance, especially toward immigrants, isn’t just a policy proposal to this president and his allies—it is the ideology that animates the entire Trump phenomenon, and a defining characteristic of the world as they want it to be.

– Chas Danner, New York Magazine


The government must work with lawyers and advocates to find the parents of these children immediately and reunite them.  Families belong in communities, not cages, and not separated across borders. And in addition to the range of crucial short-term fixes to the outrageous separation of children, we need long-term, transformative solutions to the bigotry, flawed immigration rules, disrespect for asylum, and misuse of incarceration that allowed this situation to happen in the first place. We must stand against the administration’s retrogressive vision for a structure of immigration enforcement and criminalization in our country. This moment has the potential to be a turning point toward a positive vision.

The government should be held accountable, absolutely. These families deserve compensation. They’re dealing with children and the parents themselves are deeply traumatized. This has a really broad-reaching impact on societies.

– Cathleen Caron,  Executive Director at Justice in Motion

We are proud to join nearly 300 organizations on this letter to Congress, calling on Members to cut funding for the agencies of ICE and CBP that endanger immigrant communities. It’s time to #DefundHate.

– National Immigration Law Center

There’s big business in borders and lock-ups. Companies like the GEO Group make money when families are torn apart. We don’t belong in cages, #WeBelongTogether in FREEDOM. We demand our government choose people over profits.  


I call on the Trump administration to release all of these individuals immediately, to give them access to attorneys to quickly process their asylum claims, and for them to be immediately reunited with their children […] I will also continue to push to defund ICE, to completely reform the immigration detention system and end mass prosecutions by the Department of Justice, and defund any Department of Homeland Security programs that break up families.

– Rep. Pramila Jayapal, (D) Washington


This administration’s unchecked power must be challenged now. We must mobilize, call our representatives, and vote. Now is the time to bring in the persuadable skeptics who have resisted the idea that this administration is dangerously bigoted toward immigrants and people of color.

So ultimately, we have to turn the tide on Trump’s politics of fear and division — by voting […] The majority Americans, the “coalition of the decent” are disgusted by what they’re seeing on TV and in social media, but we have to put our beliefs into action.

– America’s Voice

We can stop this. Members of Congress have the power to decide which programs and agencies are funded, and how they are funded. ICE and CBP will not be able to continue these atrocities without funds. It’s time for these agencies to be held accountable. It’s time to abolish ICE and CBP. Add your name to demand Congress abolish ICE and CBP.

– United We Dream

Call your local, state and/or national representatives to let them know that you think this is a humanitarian issue. You can find your federal senators and representatives here.

– Women’s Refugee Commission

Six Tips for Responding to Supreme Court Decisions


  1. Be cautious.

    Don’t comment until you’ve seen the facts and the lead party’s statement. Remember, the first statement you make will be the most powerful. Comment to shape the conversation, not argue with the opposition about what the decision means. Consider your audience and the big picture of what those who read your statement will take away from it, and remember that if you jump in and don’t have a well-thought out point of view, that’s likely to be what your audience will remember.

  2. Focus on what the case means to our shared values.

    Consider the decision through your audience’s eyes. Most audiences are not at all familiar with – or even focused on – the outcomes of Supreme Court cases and their impressions will be shaped by headlines and topline rhetoric. It’s important to find ways to engage at that level, while providing detailed legal arguments only for audiences who want that. A great way to do this is to focus on values. Consider what the case suggests for the celebration or undermining of those values.

  3. Avoid jargon…

    In favor of plainspoken and accessible language that tells a story your audiences can digest, and that will spark action. Include stories, imagery, and metaphors that are memorable and stay with audiences longer than legal points.

  4. Try to comment on the case, not the court.

    If you don’t agree with a decision, it’s tempting to admonish the court for being out of touch. But remember that the Supreme Court is considering multiple cases impacting a range of issues across the social justice spectrum. Attacking the ideological profile of particular justices without discussing their alignment (or misalignment) of values in relationship to a decision can undercut a more favorable decision they may make on another issue. The way around this is to speak about what the case means to our shared values and national identity, and how decisions do or do not reflect those values. It may make sense to criticize the ruling, and specific justices’ opinions, but do leave room for the possibility that the court could rule more favorably on other cases. Try to refrain from comments that write off the court in its entirety.

  5. Don’t focus on what the decision isn’t.

    Discuss what it is. Explaining the legal details of what the case doesn’t mean is not as powerful as affirmatively stating what it does mean. Spending too much time telling audiences that the ruling does not outlaw abortion, for instance, only repeats the phrase and strengthens it in audiences’ minds.

  6. Pivot to solutions and action.

    While reporters covering the case may want “just the facts,” there are many opportunities to remind audiences of the solutions that the case highlights, and what they can do to make those solutions happen. Base audiences, in particular, will be fired up to do something whether in a celebratory or angry mood, so make sure to give them something concrete that they can do.

Talking About the Muslim Ban, Trump v. Hawaii

On April 25, the Supreme Court heard Trump v. Hawaii, one of the legal challenges to the Trump administration’s Muslim Ban, which had been blocked by the courts time and time again. Before the end of June, the Court will issue its decision in the case. It’s time to remind key audiences that this ban is an obvious violation of our values. We suggest a Value, Problem, Solution, Action structure when building messages about the ban; see examples below.


Communications research shows that audiences are more receptive to new arguments when they are framed by shared values. For recent Executive Orders, there are three sets of recurring values that we want to keep at the center of the conversation:

1. Our Core National Values

Values: Opportunity, freedom, justice, dignity, fairness, our founding legal documents.

Remind people of the kind of country we want to be, drawing on our best ideals. For some audiences, describing times in our history when we have done the right thing is inspiring.

Values: Opportunity, freedom, justice, dignity, fairness, our founding legal documents.

We believe in religious freedom. We believe in equality of opportunity. We welcome our Muslim, immigrant, and refugee neighbors. #NoMuslimBanEver

ReThink Media

Americans now face a choice: Do we stand up for our highest values, treating others with dignity, fairness, and respect? Or do we succumb to bigotry and fear, allowing ourselves to be divided on the basis of faith or nation of origin?

Azadeh Shahshahani, Project South

A nation founded with the promise of religious freedom. This nation wants to ban Muslim immigrants? ‪#NoBanNoWall

– Franchesca Ramsey, YouTuber

2. Our Moral Responsibility

Remind audiences of our responsibilities to our fellow humans and how we must rise above fear and xenophobia to find our “better angels” as Abraham Lincoln once said. We share responsibility for one another and for protecting and uplifting human rights.

Values: Empathy, compassion, community.

Having once borne the brunt of severe discriminatory treatment, particularly in the immigration context, the Catholic Church will not sit silent while others suffer on account of their religion.

– U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., Amicus brief

Today and every day, I stand proudly with my Muslim neighbors for religious freedom. #NoMuslimBanEver

ReThink Media

All of us deserve to feel safe from hatred and to live and pray in peace. The Muslim Ban has no place in our society—not now, not ever.

– American Friends Service Committee

3. Our “Can Do” Spirit

Audiences are hungry for solutions in times like these. We have to remember to highlight what we want moving forward – and how we can get there – in addition to pointing out what we’re against. Sympathetic audiences need to be primed to feel proud of our country’s capacity to accommodate all kinds of people, and our history of providing opportunity for those seeking it. Those in our base need to hear forward-leaning messages about working together to counter, demolish, and replace bad policies.

Values: Pragmatism, common sense, innovation, determination to do the right thing, our shared responsibility to fix flawed policies, solidarity.

The technological and scientific breakthroughs that fuel the economic engine of the country — search, cloud computing, social media, artificial intelligence, faster and faster microprocessors, the Internet of Everything, reusable spacecraft — were all made possible by the ingenuity, imagination and invention of newcomers to America, including Muslims from across the world.

Amicus brief filed by 58 tech companies in opposition to the ban.

Amici (the schools submitting the brief) have long recognized the importance of attracting international students, faculty, staff, and scholars. International scholars and faculty share important insights about the conditions, traditions, and cultural values and practices of their home nations. Their work leads to critical advancements across all disciplines, from science and technology to arts and letters, often through cross-border collaborations that enhance teaching and research. … The benefits of international diversity in American higher education thus inure not only to colleges and universities themselves, but to the country and indeed the world.

Amicus brief from 30 universities in opposition to ban.


Frame problems as threats to our shared values. This is the place to pull out stories and statistics that are likely to resonate with the target audience. But choose facts carefully. We all have a lot of evidence to support our claims. However, facts do not tend to change minds if the facts are not couched in values.

The Muslim ban, in all of its iterations, is nothing more than religious intolerance masquerading as an attempt to address (unfounded) security concerns.

Amicus brief filed by the Muslim Justice League and other Muslim rights groups.

The Trump Administration is threatening to close our doors on Muslims, immigrants, and refugees. But as citizens of this nation, we’re laying out our welcome mats. #NoMuslimBanEver

ReThink Media


Pivot quickly to solutions. Positive solutions leave people with choices, ideas, and motivation. They are the hero of the story and rescue the values at stake. In the case of these Executive Orders, our existing laws and their enforcement, our resiliency, and our values will all point us in the right direction when it comes to solutions.

I think this is a problem that will need diplomatic solutions, political solutions, military solutions, educational, social, and other solutions. So, this is a problem that is multi-faceted and therefore requires a multi-faceted solution. Muslims are an integral part of that solution.

– Dr. Khalid Qazi, Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York.


Assign an action. What can this specific target audience do? Try to give them something concrete that they can picture themselves doing: making a phone call, sending an email. Steer clear of vague “learn more” messages, when possible. For people who have only recently become active due to the events of the past few months, it is particularly important to be explicit about action. Include specific steps and assurances that they can help make a difference by following through.

Join us in standing outside #SCOTUS with so many other orgs on April 25th & laying out our welcome mats for those abroad. #NoMuslimBanEver

On April 25th, we’re laying out our welcome mats for our Muslim neighbors in front of #SCOTUS. Bring your own and tell the world: we stand for religious freedom. #NoMuslimBanEver

– ReThink Media

VPSA Examples:


America is a nation of values, founded on an idea – that 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. So how we treat new and potential immigrants reflects our commitment to the values that define us as Americans.


The ban on immigrants from these seven countries violates our most basic values. With this ban, the president is denying due process to people who have already gone through the work to obtain visas. He is denying people the opportunity to contribute to our country, and our opportunity to learn from these newcomers, a time-honored American tradition that has led to the innovative, rich cultural diversity and welcoming spirit that we’re known for on our best days. Instead, this ban shows us at our worst: closed off and closed minded, fearful and backward-looking.


Instead of focusing on divisive, unnecessary, and illegal bans, this administration needs to focus on the real needs of our immigration system and the people involved in it: migrants, families, employers, and communities.


Make your voice heard. Tell your representatives and the White House that you oppose this harmful and unnecessary ban.



Our country is changing, getting more and more diverse. It might make some of us uncomfortable, but it is our reality, and a constant throughout our history.


Politicians play on this fear, trying to divide us. They push unwise and divisive ideas like sending federal troops to police our cities, building a border wall, or singling out Muslim Americans because of their religion. If we take the bait, it makes our country weaker, not stronger. Our nation is stronger when every one of us can contribute and share ideas, and when everyone’s basic rights and dignity are respected.


We need to embrace ideas that unify us as a diverse people and make our country stronger, and we need to speak out against discrimination and prejudice when we see it.

Building a Narrative to Address Violence in the U.S.

This memo holds guidance for engaging strategic audiences in conversations about how to address violence and those who have been accused of or convicted of violence in the U.S. The recommendations here emerge from a thought partnership between The Opportunity Agenda, which has extensive expertise in communications and messaging, and Common Justice, which has a decade of experience working on and talking about violence and repair.

This advice is intended to help shape a larger story, or narrative, around violence, its causes, and the people involved and change hearts, minds, and policies around the issue.

These ideas are meant to serve as a jumping off point for more specific messages. The idea behind relying on common, or “big ideas” in talking about violence issues is to develop a familiar, pro-reform story that moves our target audiences. A compelling and coherent “echo chamber” helps to unite diverse voices and viewpoints, and helps to move audiences toward positive policy changes.

Narrative Principles

We recommend adopting a consistent core narrative rooted in the values that you share with your priority audiences and the themes that you want to communicate again and again in different forms and situations. You can then develop specific messages—whether for a press conference, a TV soundbite, a speech, town hall, or tweet—based on those core principles.

For reasons discussed more fully below, we recommend a narrative rooted in three main pillars:

  1. Preventing harm,
  2. Upholding the values of accountability, equal justice, and pragmatism, and
  3. Promoting rehabilitation, restoration, and repair.

Other relevant values include safety, opportunity, and community. These core themes can be adapted to promote the large majority of your goals, and to respond to a wide range of events and challenges.

Working from that foundation, a Core Narrative should:

  • Lead with shared values.
  • Highlight the systemic obstacles to those values that communities face.
  • Promote effective solutions, successes, and alternatives.

While virtually all communications should flow from the same core narrative, your specific messages should be customized for different audiences, spokespeople, issues, and contexts. The following principles can help to produce messages that are genuine, accurate, and strategic.

Engage Strategic Audiences

Key to developing and implementing a narrative that encourages commonsense criminal justice reform focused on prevention and fairness is engaging strategically with different audiences. We recommend considering priority audiences in terms of:

  • Persuading undecided audiences. Most people fall into this group, either because they are carrying competing narratives in their heads or simply haven’t thought very much about the issue. Nationally, for instance, Millennials, independent voters, and people of faith are disproportionately open and persuadable on criminal justice issues.
  • Activating the base. People who support reform but are not yet fully engaged in promoting or implementing it should be prioritized for organizing and calls to action. They can also be called upon to convince people in their networks who are not yet on board with reform.
  • Engaging those most affected. Survivors of crime are an important voice for reform and should be respectfully engaged. Public opinion research suggests that survivors of crime are increasingly disappointed by their treatment within the criminal justice system,[1]and many favor accountability through restorative justice, community supervision, or drug and mental health treatment instead of prosecution and incarceration.

Build a Strategic Message

One formula for building an effective message is Value, Problem, Solution, Action. Using this structure, we lead with the shared values that are at stake, outline why the problem we’re spotlighting is a threat to those values, point toward a solution, and ask our audience to take a concrete action.

Lead with values and vision. Most communicators agree: people don’t change their minds based on facts alone, but rather based on how those facts are framed to fit their emotions and values. Shared values help audiences “hear” messages more effectively than do dry facts or emotional rhetoric.

  • A central goal of any community is the safety of its members. 

Introduce the problem. Frame problems as a threat to your vision and values. This is the place to pull out stories and statistics that are likely to resonate with the target audience.

  • Currently, our prison system only exacerbates harm in communities by isolating people, separating families, and providing little or no rehabilitation. This doesn’t serve the needs of survivors, communities, or those who are imprisoned. That doesn’t make our communities safer.

Pivot quickly to solutions. Positive solutions leave people with choices, ideas, and motivation. Assign responsibility—who can enact this solution?

  • We need to take a close look at what really reduces violence in our communities, and how communities heal from its aftermath. We know that when survivors of violence, for instance, are involved in decisions about how we hold people who have engaged in violence accountable, some remarkable things happen that are much more in line with our goals and values than the mass imprisonment we’re seeing now.

Assign an action. Try to give people something concrete that they can picture themselves doing: making a phone call, sending an email. Steer clear of vague “learn more” messages when possible. Ask your audience to take action on your behalf, by sharing the information about your office with friends and family members, attending community events, and/or visiting your website.

  • Join us by [include a concrete action that your audience can take].

 Sample Messages

 Accountability, Restoration, and Repair

When people hurt others, they have to be accountable for the damage they cause. Then we have to make sure our response makes that violence less likely in the future. All too often, people equate punishment and accountability, even though the two are not the same. The result in the United States has been a globally unique and historically unprecedented level of punishment and a gaping lack of meaningful accountability among people who commit harm[2]. People grow and change over time in response to their circumstances, and those who commit crimes, including violence, can earn the chance for reconciliation, rehabilitation, and a new start by taking responsibility for their choices. This includes providing the conditions that allow people to develop, to rebuild, and to take full responsibility for their lives after serious and damaging mistakes. Our current outdated system instead favors locking people up with no opportunity — or really even expectation — for change.

We need effective approaches to holding people accountable for violence that are appropriate and proportionate to a person’s conduct and circumstances. And we must recognize that while responsibility is an often-rocky road that requires patience and compassion as well as swift and steady intervention, it is the most effective long-term solution to meet our goals of safety and healing.

Safe and Healthy Communities

We are committed to adopting policies and practices that enhance community safety and build healthy and safe communities.

There are real challenges in improving community safety in [City/County], and it’s important to adopt policies that are commonsense and focus on addressing cycles of violence and prevention.

A safe community is one where there is mutual respect, trust, and an understanding of and a looking out for each other. When people fear going to the police to report a crime, it makes us all less safe. We need policies that increase collaboration and make all community members safe.

Preventing Harm

Everyone wants to feel safe in their communities and feel comfortable talking to their neighbors, local police, and government officials.

Community safety is not just about crime and incarceration rates. We should be working toward a vision of community safety that is holistic and different from outdated models of measuring safety.


We need to take a responsible approach when it comes to addressing and preventing violence in our communities. We need to implement policies that are both effective and practical.

This means taking a look at what our real goals are and should be around violence and violence prevention, looking at new ideas that will move us all forward, and relying on the knowledge and experience of survivors of violence to guide our policies.

Preventing Harm

We all want to live in safe and strong communities where we look out for each other. But currently, disruptive criminal justice practices often do more harm than good, neither preventing nor addressing violence. Instead, too often survivors of crime feel caught up in an ineffective system, and those who have committed violence are imprisoned for long periods of time without truly making amends for their actions.

There is a better way. We can craft policies that address survivor and community needs that hold people who commit violence accountable, while also making it possible for them to rejoin and contribute to the community once again.

Additional Messaging Recommendations

Put forth a shared vision. Audiences connect with messages that reflect their values and articulate a better world. Outline a transformative vision of what the country could look like with sensible policies to prevent and address violence and to work with those affected by it. We need attitudes and policies that create:

  • A country where fewer people are harmed by violence and fewer people are imprisoned.
  • A country where people who are harmed get what they need and deserve when they have been hurt.
  • A country that understands that healing and prevention are more effective strategies for keeping communities safe than high incarceration levels.
  • A country that knows that because most people are capable of change, we are better off by focusing on that capacity rather than punishment.

Remind audiences about shared values. The goal of our criminal justice system should be to keep all communities safe, prevent harm, and uphold the values of fairness and equal justice. Remind people that to meet those goals, we have to align our policies with our values:

  • Accountability: Those who have committed violent crimes must make amends. Our policy makers and the criminal justice system must be accountable to communities and to people who have been affected.
  • Equal Justice: Emphasize this core value for us as Americans, which focuses on being treated equally by the system and guarding against anyone suffering from unfair disadvantages.
  • Community Safety: We need to make sure our policies truly are about keeping all communities safe.
  • Prevention: Describe the real causes of violence and the real solutions to preventing it. Emphasize prevention as a real way to keep communities safe.
  • Dignity: is about our inherent value and sense of respect.

Emphasize innovation and new ideas. Survivors, in particular, are widely supportive of prioritizing prevention, alternatives to incarceration and treatment programs, and case-by-case sentencing, particularly when they think those will advance safety. They are weary of the effectiveness of judges and parole boards in making those determinations (due in large part to many survivors’ own experiences with prejudice and recognition of the history of unfair treatment faced by communities of color, particularly black Americans). Despite this distrust in system actors, many survivors of violent crime are open to new ideas and recognize that incarceration does not necessarily lead to a safer society.

Highlight the need for systemic solutions for systemic problems. While news reports mention individual crimes, they do not talk about the systemic causes of crimes in the community. Few stories explain root causes in any detail, and forces behind the disparate impact of crime based on race, ethnicity, and gender are rarely explored. Take the opportunity to connect an inadequate health care? system, lack of social safety nets, and poverty, while offering solutions that prevent violence by investing in community opportunity and wellbeing.

Show the connections. The idea that we are interconnected and all in this together is crucial to the success of reform-oriented communications. Americans intuitively understand that increasing inequality and poverty hold back the economy and country as a whole, creating an environment in which serious social problems develop and worsen. But popular thinking on social issues easily defaults to an extreme “personal responsibility” and “bad decisions” frame. Showing and telling how we’re all affected and connected—through images, research, spokespeople, and storytelling, as well as specific messaging—is crucial.

Talk about race. Despite the evidence, many audiences are skeptical about whether racial bias still exists in America, and believe (or want to believe) that the criminal justice system treats everyone fairly. We therefore need to be specific about the mechanisms that lead to unequal treatment, gather comprehensive and reliable data, and prepare a stable of examples to make a convincing and compelling argument.

  • Highlight that many survivors of crime are people of color and are not served by the current system.
  • Understand that negative racial stereotypes and implicit bias are often an unspoken reality in conversations about crime and punishment. Properly raising them through an appeal to more positive conscious values is often the only way to overcome their effect.
  • Instead of leading with evidence of unequal outcomes alone—which can sometimes reinforce stereotypes and blame—we recommend documenting how people of color, including crime survivors, frequently face harsh and unequal treatment by the criminal justice system, and to lead with examples of the inequities faced by survivors of color to show how the current system fails them as well. Provide concrete examples of these barriers.

The Opportunity Agenda is a social justice communication lab working to build public support for greater and more equal opportunity. To learn more, and to access our free communications resources, go to

Common Justice develops and advances solutions to violence that transform the lives of those harmed and foster racial equity without relying on incarceration. To learn more, and to access our resources, go to

[1] 1 Alliance for Safety and Justice, Crime Survivors Speak (2016).

[2] Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration (2017).

Tips for Talking Due Process & Immigration

Core Message: Due process is a human right central to the American justice system. American values of justice and fairness only stand strong when we uphold the right to due process.

Most audiences believe that due process in the legal system is a basic right, central to preserving and upholding American values of security, fair treatment, and freedom from government persecution.  However, while audiences hold the concept dear, they do not easily accept that violations occur.  This is in part because the idea is so central to their notion of what America stands for that they have trouble believing we would deny it to anyone here. This embrace of due process as integral to our nation’s identity is an opportunity to tell a story of American values in peril, and to make the case for how to protect and restore them through a commonsense approach to our immigration policies.[1]

  1. Lead with Values. Fairness, equality, America’s founding principles. Assert that the United States should protect due process in order to stand up for American values.
  2. It’s About All of Us. Research shows that arguments focusing on the goal of protecting our core values resonate better than a focus on protecting the specific rights of undocumented immigrants. Emphasize that due process is central to the credibility of our justice system, and that once we start denying rights for one individual or type of people, it puts all individuals’ rights at risk.
  3. Define the Term. While audiences are committed to the concept of due process, not all immediately understand the term itself.  Describing due process as giving someone a fair trial, or access to courts and lawyers, or a set of standardized rules and procedures to protect individuals from being unfairly treated or imprisoned helps to make the term more accessible.
  4. Include positive solutions. This is an opportunity to talk about what does work, not just attack policies that don’t.  Research shows that conversations about immigration that lack positive solutions can result in increased support for enforcement measures among some persuadables.  We should always describe what needs to happen in order to restore and protect due process, and what all Americans can do to support positive and effective changes to our immigration laws.
  5. Include key information about how the current system denies due process rights to immigrants. Participants are not aware of how laws can violate due process and have a hard time believing that this could be happening. Therefore, it is important to keep the language simple and straightforward. If the rhetoric strays from a simple description, the message’s credibility could be put into question.
  6. Find the Right Spokespeople. Because audiences don’t necessarily believe that undocumented immigrants are being denied due process, messenger credibility is important.  Law enforcement, judges and faith leaders will likely be more trusted than immigration advocates or immigrants themselves.
  7. Include the Right Pieces of the Story.  Elements of due process that audiences valued the most include timeliness in granting due process, being allowed to call a loved one and a lawyer, and fair treatment.

Sample Language

  1. Due process – access to courts and lawyers and a basic set of rules for how we’re all treated in the justice system – is a human right and central to our country’s values. We should reject any policies that deny due process, for undocumented immigrants or anyone else. Our American values of justice and fairness only stand strong when we have one system of justice for everyone. If one group can be denied due process, none of us will be safe to enjoy the rights that America stands for.
  2. The United States was founded on the belief that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and on basic notions of fairness and justice. Denying due process to any group violates these core values [of fairness and justice] and hurts us all.
  3. When it comes to our outdated immigration laws, we need real solutions that embrace fairness, equal treatment, and due process. Current laws are badly broken, but disregarding our values is not the answer to fixing them. Tell Congress it’s possible–and imperative–to both modernize our immigration laws and protect our core values at the same time.

[1] This advice is based, in part, on national research on Americans’ perceptions of human rights, which included focus groups specifically on due process, as well as focus groups held in the South around a range of immigration issues.  Belden Rusonnello & Stewart, 2009 and First Research, 2010.

Communications to Protect Dreamers and our Nation’s Values

Over the last several months, millions of activists, advocates, business leaders, and everyday people have shown enormous courage in fighting to maintain the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, demonstrating their commitment to our country’s values of dignity, human rights, and inclusion. For five years, DACA has opened a path for young people brought to the United States without documentation to live, learn, work, and contribute to the communities they call home. DACA has strengthened our nation, enabling the full participation of nearly 800,000 talented young Dreamers around the country.

But today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced President Trump’s decision to end the DACA program after a “wind down” period.

We must condemn the President’s harmful and wrongheaded action, while pressing Congress to pass legislation that ensures the continued participation and dignity of these Dreamers. The Opportunity Agenda’s advice for talking about this critical issue includes:

  • Lead with Shared Values such as dignity, community, and diversity as our nation’s greatest strength.
  • Call for Solutions like the proposed bipartisan DREAM Act in Congress and local policies that facilitate the inclusion of immigrants and all young people.
  • Lift up the voices and leadership of Dreamers and their families, while avoiding the “Good Immigrant/Bad Immigrant” narrative that can unfairly vilify Dreamers’ family members and others.
  • Connect the Dots to the pattern of bigotry from the Trump administration that includes supporting white supremacists after the killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, the pardoning of Sherriff Joe Arpaio, the dismantling of civil rights protections at the Department of Justice, and many other actions.
  • Call for Action!  Americans are more willing than ever to take to the streets, to social media, and to the halls of Congress to voice their values and demand solutions. Give them concrete actions to take.
  • Avoid Mythbusting. Rather than repeat Sessions’ falsehoods about law and order, crime, and jobs, tell your affirmative story—including accurate facts.

We recommend structuring messages in terms of Value, Problem, Solution, and Action.  For example:

Value: Our nation is strongest when every one of us can contribute and share ideas, and when everyone’s basic rights and dignity are respected.  The DACA program does just that, enabling young Dreamers to fully participate in their education, work, and family life, and to contribute to our nation’s social fabric and economic engine.

Problem: President Trump’s wrongheaded decision to terminate DACA violates our country’s core values, and harms our national interest. It represents a doubling down on the divisive bigotry we heard from him after the white supremacist killing of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville.

Solution: Congress must immediately move forward with practical solutions like the proposed bipartisan DREAM Act and American Hope Act that uphold our nation’s values while moving us forward together. Those steps should go hand in hand with the commonsense policies that many cities and states are adopting to ensure that all young people can learn, work, and live their dreams.

Action: Tell your member of Congress to protect the Dreamers and our nation’s future.

In addition to this guidance, check out The Opportunity Agenda’s resources on talking about immigrant human rights, and the pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Tips for Talking about the President’s Pardon of Ex-Sheriff Joe Arpaio

In 2011, the U.S. Justice Department sued then Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for a “pattern of unlawful discrimination” against Latino Arizonans that included discriminatory and unjustified stops, searches, and detentions. As a result, a federal judge ordered him to stop these practices. Last month he was convicted of contempt of court for refusing to do so, opting instead to continue his harassment and intimidation of Latino Arizonans.

By pardoning him, the president sends a message that civil liberties are only for some, and that he is fine with law enforcement flouting the very laws they are meant to uphold.  What’s more, on the heels of defending hateful demonstrators in Charlottesville, the president used his first official pardon to give impunity to a notorious violator of equal justice and our Constitution.

We recommend a two-pronged response to this news: 1) immediate condemnation of what Arpaio stands for: racism, racial profiling, and division – via a values lens; and 2) a pivot to the positive vision we have for a country that rejects racial profiling and every other form of racism.

Condemn the Arpaio mindset by describing the values at risk: equal justice, respect, safety, diversity. Frame the problem as a threat to these values.

  1. Racial profiling harms all Americans. It violates the American value of equal justice that we all depend on. It disrespects and discriminates against millions of young people and others around the country. It threatens public safety and can ruin people’s lives. It’s time to end racial profiling and focus law enforcement on evidence and public safety.
  2. We need to be clear: it is unacceptable for those who enforce our laws to stereotype people based on the color of their skin, religion, or nation of origin. Law enforcement should act on facts and evidence, not racial bias. If one group can be singled out based on race or ethnicity or religion, none of us will be safe to enjoy the rights that the United States stands for.
  3. We are stronger when we find ways to encourage participation and contribution, not ways to divide, exclude and discriminate. We have to condemn, in the strongest terms, those who engage in and encourage racist tactics.
  4. Is it right for a mother of Asian or Latino background who speaks with an accent to get asked for her papers—right in front of her children—when her white friend next to her does not? Is it right for a military veteran to be asked for his papers just because he’s of Mexican heritage? Is it right that immigrants who work hard and aspire to be citizens live in daily fear of being stopped, arrested, and deported away from their loved ones? Is it right to create a culture of suspicion in an America that becomes more diverse every day? No. Anyone who engages in or encourages discrimination is flat out wrong. That’s not who we are as a country.

Remind audiences that President Trump’s pardon of Arpaio reinforces a pattern of bigotry and discrimination in the wake of Charlottesville and long before.

  1. President Trump’s pardon of Arpaio doubles down on his defense of bigotry and discrimination in the wake of the Charlottesville hate march and Heather Heyer’s killing.
  2. The President’s pardon of Arpaio’s unconstitutional discrimination, his defense of hate mongers in Charlottesville, and his ban on transgender Americans serving our country are part of an unacceptable pattern of bigotry in his rhetoric, among his advisors like Stephen Miller and Kris Kobach, and in policies like the Muslim ban and the undermining of voting rights.
  3. People of good will, particularly in our government, must go beyond rejection or condemnation of the president’s words and deeds, and take action within the full limits of the Constitution to prevent him from inflicting greater discrimination, division, and harm.

Counter the Trump/Arpaio mindset with a vivid picture of what our country looks like when we work together and replace that suspicion with respect and cooperation.

  1. We are better, as people and as a country, when we welcome our neighbors, care for each other, and help those in need. We are better when we embrace our differences.
  2. We are stronger when we work together and when we learn from each other’s experiences, united as Americans. When people from different backgrounds join together, we all benefit from the diversity of those perspectives. It helps us find new ways to deal with old challenges. But we are not taking full advantage of this source of strength.
  3. Our country is changing, getting more and more diverse. It might make some of us uncomfortable, but it is our reality and a constant throughout our history. Politicians play on this fear, trying to divide us. They push unwise and divisive ideas like sending federal troops to police our cities, building a border wall, or singling out Muslim Americans because of their religion. If we take the bait on this, it makes our country weaker, not stronger. Our nation is stronger when every one of us can contribute and share ideas, and when everyone’s basic rights and dignity are respected. We need to embrace ideas that unify us as a diverse people and make our country stronger, and we need to speak out against discrimination wherever we see it.

Rise Above: Countering Fear-Based Messaging

The past few months have seen an increased volume of rhetoric that manufactures fear toward African Americans, Latinos, Muslims, and immigrants. Our goal in this research was to identify narratives that counter fear-based messaging, move persuadable Americans to embrace diversity as a foundational value, and to explore the particular words and phrases that motivate our target audiences to action.

Messaging Recommendations

  1. Talk about how we need to take advantage of our source of strength in diversity. Be aspirational, positive, and talk about embracing our differences.
  2. Define opportunity through the means that enable a tangible payoff: pursuing an education and getting a good paying job or career. Position discrimination as a barrier to opportunity and to those payoffs.
  3. Acknowledge that some people might be uncomfortable with change when asserting the importance of diversity.
  4. Highlight the importance of getting to know and accepting people from different backgrounds as a solution and a strength.
  5. When talking about universal values of being American that should apply to all people, explicitly say “no matter what someone looks like/where they come from/what their race is.”
  6. Talk about our need to hold the wealthiest corporations and individuals accountable for paying their fair share. People are prone to think in zero sum terms. Repositioning the “haves” as the wealthiest corporations (instead of people receiving government assistance) is more effective than trying to argue we all do better when we all do better.
  7. Talk about shared values of respect, dignity, and everyone’s basic rights.

Messaging Do’s and Don’ts

When opponents call it political correctness: Call out manufactured fear as “bait” from “politicians trying to divide us.”

When opponents talk about safety: Talk instead about strength and how fear makes us weaker.

Provide a strong call to action:

  • Remove the barriers of discrimination that hold people back.
  • Lean in to ideas that unify us as a diverse people and make us stronger.
  • Speak out against discrimination and scapegoating when we see it.

Top Messages

Messages were tested for moment-to-moment responses in the online survey. Below are the winning messages that beat the opposition argument and increase people’s willingness to take action. The lines on the graphs are the moment-to-moment reactions to an audio recording of each message by our base, opposition, persuadables, and activists. People dialed positively (above 50) when they had a favorable reaction to the words, and negatively (below 50) when they had an unfavorable reaction. The number in parentheses represents the mean dial rating for that message. Passages in bold were especially effective.

Diversity as Strength

We are stronger when we work together and when we learn from each other’s experiences, united as Americans. When people from different backgrounds join together we all benefit from the diversity of those perspectives. It helps us find new ways to deal with old challenges. But we are not taking full advantage of this source of strength. If we embraced our diversity and valued the views of our fellow Americans, we’d be more likely to find solutions to our problems and better ensure that everyone has the opportunity to pursue their dreams. Whether white, Black, or Latino, whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim, we are all Americans. We need to embrace our different experiences, perspectives, and cultures because united we stand, and divided we fall.

Real America

America is a nation of values, founded on an idea -°©‐ that all men and women are created equal. And while we all have our circles, whether they are our family, co‐workers, or friends on Facebook, how we treat others outside of our circles reflects our commitment to the values that define us as Americans. It’s not about 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. We are better, as people, and as a country, when we welcome our neighbors, care for each other, and help those in need. We are better when we embrace our differences.


Our country is changing, getting more and more diverse. It might make some of us uncomfortable, but it is our reality, and a constant throughout our history. Politicians play on this fear, trying to divide us. They push unwise and divisive ideas like sending federal troops to police our cities, building a border wall, or singling out Muslim Americans because of their religion. If we take the bait on these, it makes our country weaker, not stronger. Our nation is stronger when every one of us can contribute and share ideas, and when everyone’s basic rights and dignity are respected. We need to embrace ideas that unify us as a diverse people and make our country stronger, and we need to speak out against discrimination and prejudice when we see it.

_____________________________________________________________________  __               


Focus Groups: Lake Research Partners conducted six focus groups in 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina on January 23, 2017 with white women and mixed gender African Americans, in Phoenix, Arizona on January 25, 2017 with white men and mixed gender Latinos, and in Baltimore, Maryland on February 15 with white men and white women. Participants were recruited to be moderate to independent lean-­‐partisan, with a mix of marital status and education level. National Online Dial Survey: Lake Research Partners designed and administered a survey conducted online from March 1 through 6, 2017. The survey reached a total of 1,000 registered voters nationwide with oversamples of 100 African Americans, 100 Latinos, and 100 Millennials. The margin of error for the nationwide adults sample is +/-­‐3.1%. It is larger for subgroups. The sample of activists was conducted March 2 through 24.

Expanding Opportunity for Everyone

Two recent studies have alleged that Ban the Box policies hurt young men of color’s chances of getting a job. The studies assume that employers discriminate against these young men because hiring staff don’t have access to any conviction record and therefore assume that applicants have a record.

These studies’ misguided attacks on Ban the Box policies are troubling for several reasons: 1) they restate the longstanding reality, that discrimination against young men of color in America exists, but do not offer solutions to battle that discrimination, and 2) they suggest questioning or repealing a policy that has successfully and measurably opened the door for many qualified jobseekers emerging from prison or jail. In addition to these problems, critics of the studies have pointed out several methodological issues with the studies.

It’s important to counter the message these studies send—that we should rethink Ban the Box—with a united strategy that focuses on our values, the bigger issues at stake, and the solutions we should all rally behind.

Therefore, it’s recommended that those speaking on behalf of these policies organize messages around four main themes:

1. We can’t tolerate discrimination in any form.

Making employment available to as many people as possible is the cornerstone of a strong community and democracy, and these studies spotlight how discrimination poses an ongoing barrier to African American job applicants.

  • Emphasize what we all believe in: opportunity, equality, and that discrimination of any kind is a barrier to opportunity and to progress. Acknowledge the biases that we all carry around in our heads and must work to overcome, and make clear that those biases should never decide someone’s employment future. There are laws to protect us all, and we should enforce them.
  • Remind people of times that they may have faced discrimination for whatever reason, and that they would want to be protected. Almost everyone has felt on the outside at some point in time; building on that empathy can help firm people’s support for anti-discrimination measures.
  • Avoid assuming audiences understand how or believe that discrimination can be decreased or eliminated. Explain that it is illegal, and that anti-discrimination laws work when they are rigorously enforced. Use examples of when enforcement has made a difference.

Opportunity is a core American value that means that we all deserve a chance to reach our potential. Discrimination is a major barrier to opportunity, and we all have a responsibility to eliminate it.

There are all kinds of wrong stories, stereotypes, and biases out there about different groups of people that hurt their chances to move forward in the world. We have to make sure we have laws that protect people from discrimination and that expand opportunity for all of us.

Government has a responsibility to ensure equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination. Virtually all of us are from families where someone was treated poorly because they were a woman, a little older, or had a disability. We need strong laws that knock down arbitrary and subtle barriers to equal access that any of us might face.

2. We should stick with successful policies.

“Ban the Box” is a commonsense first step that has been successful in moving people into employment, in expanding opportunity, in ensuring a second chance for people with criminal records, and in challenging and defeating negative stereotypes. Access to employment is the backbone of a strong community. We should stick with policies that work.

  • policies that work: commonsense, land of second chances, deserving a fresh start, and removing barriers to success for people with records. Talk about people returning from prison or jail, people with records, young people, workers, job applicants, moms, dads, family members.  We are all more than one label.
  • terms like: Felons, Offenders, Inmates, Ex-Cons, Juveniles. Using defensive language like “Ban the box policies don’t encourage discrimination…” Focus on success.

We’re a country that believes in second chances when things go badly or when people make mistakes. Ban the box policies give people with records an opportunity to start fresh and apply for a job without harmful stereotypes hanging over their heads. Having a job and financial stability is an important part of starting over and rejoining a community – it’s in everyone’s best interest to remove any barriers to success so that people really are getting a second chance.

3. Let’s focus on the real problem.

These new studies, when examined closely, don’t show that ban-the-box policies are costing African American applicants job opportunities. Race based discrimination is the problem here; ban the box policies are thoughtful solutions that have helped reveal this serious problem.

  • that we have to live up to our values and discrimination is wrong across the board. We can’t tolerate it. These studies have real flaws that we need to examine before taking their advice.
  • arguing against the studies’ conclusions before setting up a values proposition. The point is not to argue with the studies’ authors on their own terms, but instead to bring the argument back to challenging discrimination of any kind.

We want to be a country in which people have equal access to opportunity and are not blocked by discrimination. But these studies don’t pose any solutions for addressing discrimination. That alone is troubling, but they also have some real methodological issues that we need to talk about.

No one’s economic future should be threatened by stereotypes or discrimination in a hiring situation. We have laws that protect us all against that sort of thing and it’s our responsibility as a country to ensure that we build on and strengthen them, and that employers fully understand and follow them.

4. We all have a stake in removing barriers to opportunity.

We need to both expand opportunity for people with records and to remove barriers triggered by all kinds of discrimination in the hiring process. Emphasize that dismantling successful policy remedies can never be the answer.

  • that it’s about all of us, our identity as a community/state/country. We’re in it together and we all want to move forward. We all have a responsibility to tackle discriminatory practices.
  • Emphasize the question, should our children and loved ones continue to be punished for things we have already been held accountable?
  • getting forced into an “either/or” argument. We have to emphasize tackling discrimination of all kinds.

These studies say they are concerned about discrimination, but offer no real solutions to ending discrimination. We all have a stake in making sure everyone has an equal shot at success, including people with records who face some of the biggest barriers to moving forward. We need to stick with the proven policies that have protected these folks from discrimination, while also continuously working to end other forms of discrimination.

We have been successful in passing laws that protect us all from discriminatory practices. It’s our responsibility as a country to ensure that we build on and strengthen them, and that employers fully understand and follow them. 

Building a Message with VPSA: Value, Problem, Solution, Action

One useful approach to tying these themes together is to structure communications around a Value, Problem, Solution, and Action structure, meaning that each message contains these four key components:  Values (why the audience should care, and how they will connect the issue to themselves), Problem (framed as a threat to the shared values we have just invoked), Solution (to provide hope and purpose), and Action (a concrete ask of the audience, to ensure engagement and movement).

Values: Opportunity, Equality, Second Chances

Starting with values that matter to most Americans can help audiences to “hear” our messages more effectively than do dry facts or emotional rhetoric. Encouraging people to think about shared values encourages aspirational, hopeful thinking – a better place to start when entering tough conversations than fear or anxiety.

Problem: Discrimination in Any Form

Frame discrimination as the central problem here, and as a threat to our values. Talk about discrimination as a barrier to opportunity and a failure in moving toward a more equal society.

Solution: Positive Policies and Rigorous Enforcement

Be meticulously solution-oriented. Some people who understand that unequal opportunity and discrimination exist may also believe that nothing can be done about them, leading to “compassion fatigue” and inaction. Describe how ban the box policies help to decrease discrimination for people with records, while also pointing to other remedies fordiscrimination in other forms. Keep the tone aspirational – that we can decrease discrimination and remove barriers to opportunity for everyone.

Give your audiences something that they can do in the short, medium, and/or long-term.

Sample VPSAs

On the studies’ findings that discrimination is happening

Value: Opportunity is a core American value that means that we all deserve a chance to reach our potential. Discrimination is a major barrier to opportunity, and we all have a responsibility to eliminate it.

Problem: As these studies show, discrimination against African American job applicants persists. This is a blow to our national values. No one’s economic future should be threatened by stereotypes or discrimination in a hiring situation.

Solution: We have been successful in passing laws that protect us all against that sort of thing. It’s our responsibility as a country to ensure that we build on and strengthen them, and that employers fully understand and follow them. 

Action: Push for the full and rigorous enforcement of equal opportunity laws that ban discrimination and uphold equal opportunity for everyone. Push to protect policies that decrease discrimination, as Ban the Box policies have done for people with records.

On the studies’ attacks on Ban the Box policies

Value: In moments like this, it’s important to take a step back and focus on our core beliefs as a country. We’ve long been a country that believes in opportunity for everyone, for equal treatment, and economic mobility. We also believe in second chances when things go badly or when people make mistakes. Ban the box policies uphold all of these values, giving people with records an opportunity to start fresh and apply for a job without harmful stereotypes hanging over their heads.

Problem: These studies ask us to reconsider these important and successful policies without addressing the core issue they identify: discrimination against African-American job applicants.

Solution: We have to address discrimination at all levels. And we have to do that without adding to the barriers people emerging from prison and jail face. Having a job and financial stability is an important part of starting over and rejoining a community – it’s in everyone’s best interest to remove any barriers to success so that people really are getting a second chance.

Action: Continue your support of this important, effective, and successful policy.

**Written in collaboration with the National Employment Law Project**

Tips for Talking About Law Enforcement Enhanced Penalty Laws

 Protect Community Safety by Rejecting Enhanced Penalties1

We all want safe communities and to feel protected and secure. Violence against anyone threatens that, and we all have a responsibility to stop, prevent, and condemn violence in any form.

But the recently proposed laws that require enhanced penalties for offenses involving law enforcement officials don’t do that. There are already adequate laws that ensure that those who compromise police officer safety are penalized, making enhanced penalty laws wasteful and unnecessary. Moreover, these proposed laws have additional consequences that harm communities in the long run. They impair the relationship between police and communities, interfere with people’s ability to come together as a community in peaceful demonstrations and protests, and they do nothing to improve officer wellness.

Legislators should vote no on these proposed laws that would only end up hurting communities. Instead, lawmakers should focus on policies that improve the relationship between police and communities, and that improve officer wellness and health.

Vote no on these bills and uphold true community safety.

Value at Stake: Community Safety2

1. Enhanced penalty laws would compromise community safety and impair the relationship between community members and the police.

  • In a time when the public is interested in more accountable and responsible policing, enhanced penalty laws would only impair community relations and create a legitimacy crisis, wherein community members perceive police officers as attempting to become a “protected class” that is above the law.
  • Enhanced penalty laws are often described as hate crime statutes, which intend to protect those who have experienced a “long legacy of violence, intimidation, and discrimination.” Using these laws, which are intended to protect people against discrimination because of their skin color, faith, LGBTQ status, or the fact that they have a disability, will only drive a wedge between law enforcement officers and the community.
  • Instead, lawmakers should address “rifts in the relationships between local police and the communities they protect and serve.”
  • We need to address excessive force, biased policing and other police practices failing our communities.
  • We need to address the 1,092 people killed by police in 2015 as estimated by The Guardian.

2. Officer wellness and safety can be enhanced by improving officer training and promoting best practices. 

  • The Task Force on 21st Century Policing set forth 17 recommendations to promote officer safety that include training and best practices.
  • We should invest in officer and community wellness and safety instead of spending $80 billion a year on mass incarceration.

Sample Message:

  • It is incredibly important to ensure that law enforcement officers are safe so they can carry out their duties effectively. These types of bills do nothing to invest in officer wellness or to address the everyday challenges faced by officers. They are redundant, especially because there are laws that protect officers from violence in all 50 states.

Sample Message:

  • We need policies that protect everyone, law enforcement and community members alike — and a commitment to working together to build safe communities. These kinds of bills would only erode police-community relationships and thus threaten safety for both the community and police officers.
  • Rather than take seriously the concerns communities have about the police officer’s use of excessive force, discriminatory policing, and lack of accountability for police violence, these bills further criminalize communities and will only worsen policy-community tensions.
  • At a time when our country needs to build unity, these bills sow division between police and the communities that they protect, serve, and rely on. They will only make the job of law enforcement harder than it already is.
  • Instead of providing a bridge for communication, proponents of these bills are only isolating communities and stifling the necessary dialogue that could lead to safer communities and safer law enforcement officers.

Values at Stake: Pragmatism and Commonsense Solutions

3. Enhanced penalty laws are wasteful and unnecessary.

  • All 50 states have laws that make it a serious crime to assault or kill law enforcement officers.
  • Federal law (18 U.S.C. § 1114) requires the death penalty or a life sentence for killing a federal officer.
  • Federal law (18 U.S.C. § 1121) imposes a death or life sentence for killing a local officer involved in a federal investigation.

4. Enhanced penalty laws would fuel mass incarceration.

  • These laws could result in hundreds of new offenses and federalize crimes already prosecuted by the states.
  • Some of these bills impose mandatory minimums for assault.
  • Some of these bills impose the death penalty though capital punishment, which has not proven to be a deterrent.

Sample Message

  • Our current criminal justice system is overly punitive, costly, and racially biased. This type of legislation would only exacerbate these aspects of the system and is counterproductive to ongoing efforts to put in place smart, commonsense reforms that will make the system more fair and efficient and keep Americans safe.

Values at Stake: Human Rights and Our Constitution

5. These laws threaten free speech and assembly.

  • Being able to come together as a community in peaceful demonstrations and protests is a foundational value that is enshrined in the first amendment of our Constitution. This value is core to our identity as a nation.
  • However, law enforcement officers have at times created barriers in the exercise of speech by responding to demonstrations with militarized equipment, aggression, and widespread arrests. This type of response often threatens the exercise of free speech and violates the human rights of protestors.
  • Enhanced penalty laws would increase the penalties for people facing trumped up charges during mass arrests at a protest, undermining the community’s ability to exercise free speech.

6. Enhance penalty laws would encourage racial profiling and discrimination by police officers.

  • Officers are more likely to perceive people of color, LGBTQ and HIV affected people, and people with disabilities as aggressive. They are more likely to charge these communities with resisting arrest or assault on an officer, especially if the officer is covering up excessive force, discriminatory treatment, or other wrongdoing.
  • Enhanced penalty laws would allow officers to profile these communities and then subject them to stiffer penalties and sentences because of the alleged “hate crime” that might result from these unnecessary interactions. These incentives to profile, discriminate, and further penalize communities that already have tense relationships with the police, undermine our commitment to human rights and equal justice. Instead of more criminal penalties, let’s invest in bias training that can improve relationships between police and communities.

1. This memorandum was prepared in collaboration with members of the Justice Roundtable.

2. For more information about the role of values-based messaging and for tips on speaking about policing issues generally, visit Talking About Policing Issues.

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