The Latino Progressive Wish List for 2011: Change the Frame on Immigration

From Project Economic Refugee to you and your loved ones: may you have a happy & prosperous 2011 and may the new year bring about a new way of talking about immigration reform!

Well, chaging the frame is really more like a wish for every year, being that in talking about immigration reform, Democrats continue to fall into the trap of using the Republicans’ frame of “enforcement first” (when they really mean: enforcement-only) that serve our country only as blinders to shut our eyes and ears to the root of our “illegal immigration” problem: the oppressive poverty that creates “illegal immigrants” in the first place.  Also virtually absent of the “enforcement first” frames are how our current laws treat as second-class citizens our neighbors, friends, parents, brothers, sisters, in one phrase, a segment of our population that have lived here for years and have become as American and as productive as the next citizen minus the document that recognizes them as being “legal”.  

Until we’re willing to take a hard look at how to address that oppressive poverty and the way our laws discriminate our people, we will never solve the “illegal immigration” problem no matter how many troops are sent to the border, how high a wall is built along the border, how many or how much employers are fined for hiring undocumented workers, or how many are deported back to the misery they came from.  So as we greet with kisses and hugs the new year, allow me to echo the words of Flavia over at dear Democrats, change the frame!  On that post, she said the following that I couldn’t agree with her more on: 

Democrats, and many prominent immigration reform “advocates” have been swallowing and parroting nativist talking points for years, thinking that if they look like Republicans, and act like Republicans, then maybe Republicans will like them enough to support their initiatives (speaking of which, read this great post by a Texas blogger about the failure of the Democratic party in Texas. I see the same failings on the national level, lately.) 

[…] the fundamental problem is that Democrats, the “left” and many progressive organizations in general have swallowed a nativist narrative; that immigrants are criminals and that there has to be some kind of punishment involved. They only have enough political courage to say, as an addendum, “Shoot, maybe all these people who are working here and living here.. should stay here? Please?” 

This is a losing narrative. Accept criminality in the narrative, and the immigration reform “solution” will treat immigrants like criminals. It’s that simple. That’s why the immigration reform proposals sucked, for lack of a more honest word, and nobody could get juiced up about them. 

There is hope on the horizon.  None of the DREAMActivists that I know or work with accept any part of the nativist’s rhetoric, and I think that we won the war on messaging. 


It’s time to capture the entire frame of the debate with this narrative. When Isabel Castillo from Virginia, was doing a sit-in in Senator Reid’s office, asking for a commitment to the DREAM Act, she asked a staffer, “You love your children, right? And you’d do anything for them, right? Including cross the border?” 

As Flavia alludes to, the DREAM Act campaign actually changed the game and was able to do so because it rejected the deceitful “legal v. illegal” frame and replaced with one that really connected with people on an gut level rather than a purely faceless intellectual one, activating a frame of American identity that was able to energize people and mobilize them towards action.  It did this so powerfully that, as I have previously argued before here, as a cohesive unit the DREAM’ers became the new national leader of the 21st century for the empowerment of Latinos in America.  If we are to stand a chance at moving the immigration reform conversation forward, we all need to do more of the DREAM’ers’ groundbreaking messaging. 

For starters, we need to focus on reiterating three basic key ideas in as many communications channels as possible again and again:
1) Many of these “illegal immigrants” have actually become AMERICAN, minus the document that recognizes them formally as such,
2) These people committed a civil offense, NOT a criminal one,
3) Often with no other viable choice, these people ventured to commit this act of civil disobedience merely out of a desire to make a positive change for the prospects of their families so they could have a chance at bettering their lives and move away from oppressive living conditions.
All in all, we need to start reframing the picture of the immigrant away from the “other” because you can guarantee that in everything right-wing Republicans and those Democrats that are conservatives do in the next Congress, they will continue to paint immigrants as “not like us”, just like they have been doing so for decades.  We need to point out how these “immigrants” have actually become Americans, and above all, we need to humanize them.  The majority of immigrants work here, contribute to this country with their sweat, tears, and sometimes even their blood and have done so for years, decades, and centuries.  They invest in property here, they pay taxes, many of them have lived for many years here loving this country, and their children (the DREAM’ers) have grown up loving this country too.  For many intents and purposes, they ARE American except for a piece of paper that recognizes them as such. Without these Americans, who are currently treated as second-class citizens, our economy would crumble.  Juts look at the youth rates as an example: without immigrants, the U.S. would be facing a crisis of aging baby boomers overwhelming the system without a young working sector to sustain it.  So yes, this IS an issue of civil rights, and it’s about time we talk about it and treat it as such.