President Obama recently stood in front of the nation and made a historic, and much anticipated, announcement on immigration policy. His executive action will spare millions of mothers, fathers, workers and students from the threat of deportation, and was the result of the work of a mobilized and passionate immigrant rights movement.
However, as audiences leaned forward to absorb the details of the president’s announcement, advocates and activists around the country were likely not surprised to hear him begin the list of actions he intended to take with the US-Mexico border. We know by now that political discussions of immigration policy almost always begin with the border region, regardless of party or ideology. The political mindset holds that the persuadable public needs to hear about “border security” before they can care about relief for undocumented Americans.
But assuming this 1) greatly underestimates audiences’ compassion, understanding and obvious support for a roadmap to citizenship, and 2) only serves to reinforce a “law and order” narrative that works against pro-immigrant messages in the long term. We know from messaging experts and research that how you start the conversation matters immensely and significantly influences where you’re able to take audiences in the end. The more people hear about the need to “secure” our borders and uphold the “rule of law,” the more difficult it is to pivot them to the compassionate part of themselves that wants to protect the rights of immigrants, preserve families, and rely on values like community and opportunity over protection and security.
It is therefore crucial for immigration advocates – and all of us as a movement – to speak out and work to replace the dominant narrative around the border with a proactive, values-based story about what kind of communities we all want to live in. And to condemn what none of us want: an outsized police presence with no oversight, human rights violations and a militarized zone running through our communities.
It’s actually an easy story to tell. We all live in communities, and we value and desire the same things about them: a shared culture and history, a sustainable economy, safe neighborhoods, good schools, solid infrastructure and so on. People living in the Southwest border region want these same things. They want their kids to grow up with fond memories of their communities, to root for sports teams, to pride themselves in their unique culinary heritage.
What they don’t want – what none of us wants – is to live in a region with an outsized police presence equipped with the same kind of drones we’re flying in Afghanistan. They don’t want their kids’ childhood memories to include checkpoints and detention facilities, or to live with a law enforcement agency that has no oversight and no one to answer to for abuses. And they don’t want to live in a region where excessive border enforcement tactics have resulted in an increase in deaths, both for those in custody as well as those who now look for the most desolate and dangerous sections of the desert region to cross into this country with the hopes of providing for their families.
It’s possible to tell a story about community and to condemn the kind of excessive enforcement that affects the border communities so negatively. We need better, commonsense border policies that uphold our values and move everyone forward – not political rhetoric that moves people into a mindset that doesn’t help any of us.