Immigration Reformers Must Tell a Better Story

Joe Rodota
CEO of Forward Observer, a public affairs firm with offices in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., a former communications manager in the Reagan White House, and the author of The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address

In a recent column, Washington Post Wonkblog writers Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas ask: “Why hasn’t this been immigration August?”

Five years ago, they write, individual members of Congress were “engulfed by tea-partiers” protesting the Affordable Care Act at town hall meetings.  But this summer, nothing approaching that level of intensity surrounds immigration – from either side.

Klein and Soltas go on to speculate that supporters of reform (1) “fear that clips of immigrants shouting down members of Congress at town halls will not be well-received” and (2) “hope that Republican lawmakers realize the absence of a hot opposition makes them realize they can probably vote for a bill without too much backlash.”

“But that’s a bit of a wan hope,” they conclude.

So, are immigration reformers truly boxed in?

No.  There is opportunity to advance the argument, without risking backlash, by focusing renewed attention on the substance underlying the case for reform.  Content drives narrative, and thus far the content of the immigration reform conversation – the facts, illustrations and evidence – has been perhaps too narrow.

Here are some concrete steps reformers could take to create a more compelling narrative for immigration reform:

1. Focus on local impacts

On every federal issue, the tendency is to frame the argument in national terms.  For example, the White House has said the Senate immigration bill “will increase real GDP by 3.3 percent in 2023 and 5.4 percent in 2033 – an increase of roughly $700 billion in 2023 and $1.4 trillion in 2033 in today’s dollars.”

California would benefit from immigration reform more than any other state – we’d benefit from reforms to legal immigration that would bring us entrepreneurs and skilled workers, and from a pathway to legal status that would help employers in agriculture, tourism, hospitality and other key sectors.  According to an analysis by REMI, establishing a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants and expanding the H1-B visa program would add $5.2 billion to the California economy in 2014.

“A 2013 University of Southern California study,” Senator Feinstein recently wrote, “found that earning lawful status would empower immigrants to inject as much as $8 billion into California’s economy each year.”

These are both good examples of how to make a national case relevant at the state level.  But for a nation-state as large as California, these numbers – $5.2 billion and $8 billion – are too abstract for the average voter to understand. What’s the benefit to Orange County?  To the Central Valley?

2. Focus on unexpected benefits

One of the key findings of Chip and Dan Heath in their book, “Made to Stick,” is that information travels further if it is unexpected:  “Avoid the obvious.  Avoid things that people can see coming a mile and a half away.”   What can be said about the immigration reform issue that is truly surprising?

Here’s a good example:  Buried in the White House’s recent 32-page report on the economic impact of reform was a discussion of positive impacts on housing.  According to the report, an estimated 40 million immigrants currently create $3.7 trillion in housing wealth in the U.S. – immigrants help boost property values and increase demand for housing.  The direct and indirect effects of immigration over the last 10 years have contributed over $10,000 to the typical home, softening the impact of the recession in states like Arizona and New Mexico.

That’s a new point to make in this debate and many House Republicans, especially in Sunbelt states, represent districts hit hard by the housing crisis.  In San Bernardino County, for example, 43.4 percent of homeowners have underwater mortgages.  Making the housing argument – with the support of local builders associations, etc. – is a new way to frame the benefits of immigration reform to voters who themselves may not see any direct benefit from a reform bill.

3. Make the jobs argument more relevant to every voter

FWD.us has done an outstanding job of highlighting the contributions immigrants have made to the U.S. economy, especially in the technology sector.  But in many areas of the country, these illustrations just aren’t relevant.  In those areas it might be better to emphasize the role of immigrants who are small business owners, or support the agriculture, tourism and food service industries.

It’s important to use hard data to illustrate how reform will create regional and local jobs, and keep businesses from moving overseas.  U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently told reporters that farms are relocating abroad because of a lack of workers in the United States:  “Folks are making decisions to move their operations out of the United States … without better access to migrant farm workers, [California] could lose between $1.7 billion and $3.1 billion a year in lost farm income.”  That statement should grab the attention of Central Valley residents and elected officials.

4. Illustrate benefits for taxpayers

A study by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy showed that giving undocumented immigrants a chance to work legally in the U.S. would boost state and local tax revenues by $2 billion a year.  The CBO found that over the first 10 years, the Senate bill would add an additional $450 billion in federal tax revenues while cutting $200 billion off the deficit.  Over the second 10 years, the CBO found that reform would reduce the deficit by $700 billion.

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform supports immigration reform:  he’s called immigration “America’s number one economic asset.”   Reformers could drive the taxpayer benefits home with state and local data presented by Norquist, local taxpayer groups and state finance officials.

5. Fix the Google problem

California voters may not be in town halls, but they are certainly online.  According to a survey by Resonate, a digital media firm that pioneered values-based targeting of voters and consumers, 53% of California voters spend more than 20 hours per week online and 37% of voters read political news or opinion online.

A search for “California immigration reform” on Google is revealing: Four of the first five results are news articles – and the other is the Wikipedia page of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), a “political advocacy group devoted to immigration reduction.”  Yes, that’s right – the website of Barbara Coe, the co-author of Proposition 187.

In fact, the CCIR website and its Wikipedia page are the only two non-news results on the front page of Google results.

On Bing, the results are similar, with the CCIR website being the first and only non-news result on the front page.

“This recess,” the Post’s Klein and Soltas write, “isn’t likely to be a gamechanger” in part because the pro-reform campaign “has been oddly at arms-length.”

Restarting the debate means going back to basics with new facts and illustrations.

And reformers must answer the question on the mind of the average voter: “What’s in it for me?”

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