Language used in immigration debates may be as important as the policies

The language activists and politicians use in immigration debates may be as important as the policies they are debating when it comes to long-term effects, according to the author of a new study in the April issue of the American Sociological Review.

“When we talk about immigration policy, we are usually focused on the content—who deserves benefits and who does not,” said study author Hana E. Brown, an assistant professor of sociology at Wake Forest University. “We don’t typically talk or think about the language that we’re using to make those arguments, but my study suggests that we should.”

In her study, “Race, Legality, and the Social Policy Consequences of Anti-Immigration Mobilization,” which draws on interviews, archival materials, and newspaper content analysis, Brown shows that in Arizona and California during the 1990s, the tenor of earlier immigration debates directly affected welfare reform battles later in the decade. “In both Arizona and California, very powerful anti-immigration movements were trying to restrict the rights of undocumented immigrants,” Brown said. “But, while they were pushing for similar policies, they used different language in order to make their arguments.”

In Arizona, activists and politicians talked about immigration as a racial problem, arguing that Hispanics were taking resources away from white citizens, Brown said. In California, they argued that immigration was an issue of legal status, claiming that deserving legal immigrants suffered most from illegal immigration, and drawing a distinction between legal and illegal immigrants. Even after the immigration debates died down, these linguistic differences continued to have important political consequences, resurfacing during welfare reform fights in Arizona and California.

“During welfare reform debates, activists and politicians in each state largely used the same immigration language that had been employed in these big anti-immigrant conflicts a few years earlier,” Brown said. “Arizonans talked about welfare in racial terms and Californians used the language of legality just as they had during the immigration debates.”

Brown said that the language differences affected what kinds of coalitions emerged during the welfare reform battles. “In California, the legality frame encouraged immigrant and citizen groups representing an assortment of interests to join forces,” Brown said. “Latino groups, Asian groups, children’s rights groups, and others were able to come together and find unity and commonality through this language of legality. But, in Arizona, the language of race discouraged non-Hispanic groups from allying with Hispanic groups because there was a stigma associated with Hispanics.”

Language used in immigration debates may be as important as the policiesAfraid of alienating voters who viewed legal immigrants positively, virtually all California lawmakers voted to extend welfare benefits to legal immigrants, even many who were ineligible for federal benefits, Brown said. In Arizona, by contrast, where legislators saw welfare as a “Hispanic” issue, a bipartisan majority enacted restrictive policies for all Arizonans, limiting welfare access for legal immigrants and even for citizens.

Brown said there are some important lessons from her study that are applicable to the ongoing comprehensive immigration reform effort that is playing out on the federal level. “One is that my study shows that the language we use in immigration debates can have unintended consequences for other policy battles down the road, so we need to pay careful attention to how political leaders and activists are characterizing immigrants,” Brown said. “Using harsh anti-Hispanic rhetoric is divisive and can translate into restrictive social policies later on. But, alternative framings of immigration can create openings for powerful coalitions in other policy debates.”

According to Brown, there is at least one high profile participant in the comprehensive immigration reform effort who is aware of the impact language can have. “It seems clear to me that President Obama is aware that language matters,” said Brown. “If you look at how different parties are talking about immigration reform right now, there are some people who still refer to undocumented immigrants as illegal immigrants. But, President Obama’s leaked immigration bill would give undocumented immigrants a new label, ‘lawful prospective immigrants.’ That phrasing clearly marks these immigrants as deserving, while the term ‘illegal’ signals the opposite.”

Earlier this year, media outlets around the country reported on a leaked draft of President Obama’s immigration bill that would create a “lawful prospective immigrant” visa for illegal immigrants living in the U.S. and would pave the way for them to become legal permanent residents within eight years.

“I think there is this assumption that once the debates are over, our immigration discussions are done,” Brown said. “But, the language that we use now is going to be a resource that people can draw on even after this debate winds down.”

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