New American Immigrants

Voicing Our Values—To Support New American Immigrants

This is an addendum to our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates. Our purpose is to help lawmakers and candidates understand how to persuade undecided voters to support new American immigrants. We encourage you to adapt the language to your own voice and personalize it with your own knowledge and experience.

For a PDF copy of Voicing Our Values—To Support New American Immigrants, click here.

The best messaging for immigration advocates was created by the New Immigration Messaging project, a collaboration of America’s Voice Education Fund, Lake Research Partners, ASOCommunications, and The Opportunity Agenda. This paper relies on that research and part of their advice is reprinted verbatim at the end of this document. But as we have explained before, state and local officials and candidates sometimes need to speak a little differently than advocates.

In this case, the conversation usually begins when a constituent asks what can be done about “illegal” immigrants.

Say . . .

America deserves a commonsense immigration process that reflects the American values of freedom, opportunity and security. The current patchwork of immigration policies and programs is mismanaged and broken, and everyone agrees that we are never going to deport millions of people. So today both Democrats and Republicans recognize that the practical way forward is to create an immigration process that is based on our fundamental values and includes a roadmap for New Americans who aspire to be citizens. Right now the U.S. Congress is working on creating such a process and I support that effort.

Why . . .

Right wing advocates want to make this debate about upholding the rule of law: “but they broke the law,” they will say. If these are the terms of debate, you will lose; it strongly suggests the “solution” is to treat immigrants as criminals. You must move the conversation to our nation’s broken immigration process.

As we explain elsewhere, officeholders and candidates should (1) empathize with voters and (2) lay out their values before (3) declaring their own policy solutions. It is actually fairly easy to empathize on immigrant-related issues—voters think the current process is a wreck and that “America deserves a commonsense immigration process.” The values of “freedom, opportunity and security” are supremely popular and wholly applicable to this issue. Americans strongly support the freedom to move, equal opportunity for all, and security for themselves and their communities.

The difficult part is getting some of the persuadable or “swing” voters past their existing feelings about “illegal” immigrants. Forty-three percent of persuadable voters believe that “All illegal immigrants should be deported.” (Fifty-three percent disagree.) You cannot change the minds of that 43 percent about what “should” happen—that’s why you raise the obvious point that mass deportations are never going to happen. These persuadable voters recognize that fact. The suggested language “everyone agrees” may not be literally accurate, but it is an effective device that helps move your audience from an emotional to a practical point of view. The rest of the suggested narrative takes advantage of the bipartisan immigration effort in the U.S. Congress. State and local officials can’t fix the broken process, only federal officials can.

Nothing you say is going to sway the right wing base. In a one-on-one conversation, it is futile to keep arguing with an anti-immigrant stalwart. But if persuadable voters are watching you debate the issue, you may need to reemphasize the deportation argument.

Say . . .

We’re in this mess because of the years of politics and gridlock in Washington. It’s time to stop playing politics and focus on creating a commonsense immigration process that puts our values first and moves us forward. No reasonable person believes we can deport all immigrants living here—especially since it would take decades and cost many millions of dollars. We have the chance in Congress, right now, to break the gridlock and create an immigration process that is both realistic and fair to everyone. That’s what we must do. 

Besides the unrelenting effort to move the conversation from individual immigrants to the immigration process, the narratives above make a number of word choices which you should understand.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Illegal aliens

Illegal immigrants

Undocumented immigrants 

New American immigrants

New Americans

Aspiring citizens 

Why . . . 

Don’t say “aliens” because that implies they are different from “us,” which is both inaccurate and offensive. Don’t say “illegal” because it suggests that such people are criminals deserving of punishment, which is false. “Undocumented” has been thoroughly tested and, unfortunately, does not work. If you absolutely have to be more specific, you might say “immigrants who are not authorized to be here.” On the positive side, “new American immigrants,” “new Americans” and people who “aspire to be citizens” are poll-tested and move the conversation in the right direction.

Don’t say . . .

Say . . .

Reform the immigration system

Pathway to citizenship

Immigrants pay taxes 

Create an immigration process

Roadmap to citizenship

Immigrants contribute to America 

Why . . . 

Don’t say “reform the system” because that implies the current system provides a “solution” when, in fact, there is no line to get into. Say instead that we need to “create a process” which suggests no process currently exists. “Pathway” doesn’t work as well as “roadmap.” And persuadable voters don’t believe “immigrants pay taxes” so don’t waste your time trying to educate them—they do believe that “immigrants contribute to America” so say that instead.

There is one more messaging rule that is important when you address state issues—Americans are not inclined to “give” anything to immigrants, but at the same time, they generally don’t want to “deny” rights or necessities. So frame your arguments accordingly. For example, if you are arguing for a state DREAM Act to allow the children of new American immigrants to be eligible for in-state tuition rates:

Say . . .

We should reward hard work and responsibility. When young aspiring Americans graduate from a local high school after they have lived here for years and stayed out of trouble, we should not deny them access to college tuition discounts that are available to all their graduating classmates. Education is the cornerstone of our democracy and our economy, so when we enable young people to go to college we all reap the benefit. 

Or if you are arguing to allow immigrants access to driver’s licenses: 

Say . . .

The laws about driving on our highways should be designed to make us all safer. So it doesn’t make sense to deny new American immigrants the ability to get a driver’s license. We should want them licensed to ensure that every driver on the road is trained, tested, and covered by insurance. It’s a policy that benefits all of us. 

For much more discussion of how to talk to voters about a wide variety of issues, see our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates, which is available at www.progressivemajorityaction.org.

Sources for more detailed information about immigrants’ rights

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Advice from the New Immigration Messaging project—a collaboration of America’s Voice Education Fund, Lake Research Partners, ASOCommunications, and The Opportunity Agenda—printed verbatim.

The best message for policy debate:

Say . . .

America deserves a common sense immigration process, one that includes a roadmap for New Americans who aspire to be citizens. Everyone agrees that the current patchwork of policies and programs is mismanaged and broken, and it breaks up families. For those currently striving for citizenship, the current maze of regulations provides no light at the end of the tunnel, because there’s often no line to get into for becoming a fully participating American. For aspiring citizens, the essential rights of citizenship should be attainable by taking a test of our history and government, paying an appropriate fee, and pledging allegiance to our country. People move their families here to the land of freedom and opportunity, in order to provide a better life for their children and contribute to our culture in this country. In order to do our part to welcome newcomers, we need to create a common sense immigration process that recognizes the hardships and contributions of people moving here, keeps families together here in this country, and creates a roadmap to citizenship for New Americans who aspire to be citizens. 

For this and other poll-tested narratives about immigrants, see How To Talk About Immigrants in America.

Here’s how to answer the most common attacks on immigrants:

Attack:  “Immigrants are not real Americans.”

Say . . .

It’s not what you 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. How we treat New Americans reflects our commitment to the values that define us as Americans. We believe that families should stick together, that we should look out for each other, and that hard work should be rewarded. No matter where you are from, what makes you American is your commitment to the country we call home.

Attack:  “Immigrants steal our jobs, drain public services, and don’t pay taxes.”

Say . . .

All types of immigrants, regardless of how they came here, contribute to our culture and economy. As Americans, we all do our part to contribute, and we’re all better for having hardworking new immigrants as contributing members of our communities by being customers in our stores, paying payroll taxes, and giving to local churches and charities. People around the world have moved here throughout history to work hard in order to make life better for the next generation, and the constant revitalization of the American spirit—bringing new energy, new cultures, and new ideas here—that makes us strong as a country. 

Attack:  “Immigrants don’t have rights.”

Say . . .

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. In every generation, we’ve had brave individuals who choose to defend liberty and justice for all—no exceptions. Whether motivated by a sense of justice or a moral belief, the land of the free is always moved forward by brave people of good conscience standing on the correct side of history. 

Attack:  “Immigrants should come here the right way or not at all.”

Say . . .

Everyone agrees that the current patchwork of policies and programs is mismanaged and broken, and it breaks up families. For those currently striving for citizenship, there’s often no line to get into for becoming a fully participating American. For aspiring citizens, the essential rights of citizenship should be attainable by taking test of our history and government, paying an appropriate fee, and pledging allegiance to our country. In order to do our part to welcome newcomers, we need to make America the most attractive place for the best, brightest, and the hardest working people from around the world. That’s why America deserves a common sense immigration process, one that includes a roadmap for New Americans who aspire to be citizens.

Attack:  “Immigrants broke the law and should be sent back home.”

Say . . .

People move to make life better for themselves and their families. Most families moved here in the past for the same reason that American immigrants move here today—to raise a family in a land of freedom and opportunity. It’s hard to move—to pack up everything and go to a new place takes courage. People move in order to improve life, and we believe that moving to make a better life for your family is one of the best things and one of the hardest things a person can do. One of the values we hold dear to our hearts is a deeply rooted belief in the freedom to be who you want to be, say what you want to say, and go where you want to go. America is supposed to be the land of freedom and opportunity—that’s a good thing so let’s keep it that way.

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