Crucial Issues Not Addressed in the Immigration Debate: Why Deep Framing Matters

This article was originally published by George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson of the Rockridge Institute on May 28, 2006.

Our recent article, The Framing of Immigration, was about issues that are outside the frame of the “immigration problem” but are crucial to understanding immigration. The “immigration problem” frame points the finger at immigrants and administrative agencies as being “the problem.” This grossly oversimplifies a hugely complex set of issues involving the suppression of wages in the US economy and the “cheap labor trap” for workers here; the failure to crack down on illegal employers; the economic and political conditions that force immigrants to leave and the role US foreign policy has had in creating or perpetuating these conditions; the major contributions immigrants make to our economy without gratitude or proper recognition; and the humanitarian crisis caused by economic and political refugees.

These are real problems that largely go unframed — and thus unconsidered. Frames structure the way we think, the way we define problems, the values behind the definitions of those problems, and what counts as “solutions” to those frame-defined problems. If the problems are the immigrants and administrative agencies, all solutions involve those parties — building hi-tech walls, hiring more agents, calling in the National Guard, identification cards, stiff citizenship requirements, a “temporary worker” program with no rights for workers. As we noted, other frames allow us to see other problems, other causes, and other solutions.

Why the narrow framing of issues? Part of the answer comes from the difference in the way conservatives and progressives argue about causation. Conservatives tend to argue politically in terms of direct causation, while progressives are open to seeing systemic causation. Consider what is happening to low-to-middle income American workers. Our economy is structured to consider relatively unskilled labor as a resource, whose cost is to be minimized so that productivity and profits can be maximized. The more productive workers responsible for higher profits see wages stay the same or go down as profits go up. If they are replaced by illegal immigrants who work for even less, the immigrants are blamed, not the illegal employers who hired them, nor the economic system driving down wages. Conservative ideology sees the social safety net as immoral as well as wasteful. As conservatives, in hundreds of ways small and large, attack the safety net and take money out of the system for it through tax policy and the war in Iraq, American workers get squeezed more and more. Who is blamed? Not conservative ideologues ultimately responsible for the squeeze, but impoverished immigrants who receive modest benefits. In both cases, the visible immigrant present on the scene is taken as the direct cause, when the deeper causes — the ones that can’t be cured by an immigration bill —are systemic and go undiscussed.

The situation of American workers and the status of our social safety net are in disastrous shape. Framing matters here, as Lakoff has argued in his article on the framing of the living wage issue. We do not believe that by expelling several million people, currently living in the shadows, that the problems of American workers will be solved, or that the social safety will miraculously recover. The reasons for this plight, as we have seen, are varied, complex, and deep-seated. When undocumented immigrants are scapegoated, attention is diverted from more fundamental causes. Why hasn’t the government raised the minimum wage in nearly a decade? Why are the hundreds of billions of dollars being used to wage an unnecessary war instead being used to provide Americans with meaningful work? Or, with a national healthcare system? And why has nearly ten percent of Mexico’s population been willing to face death to move north?

What is particularly sad to us is to see progressives accept the conservative framing of the issue.

Our job at Rockridge is to point out how the deep framing of values and issues is currently being done, what is left out, and how reframing can allow us to see otherwise hidden realities. We are concerned with reality. We are committed to showing how hidden realities can be framed so that they can be seen and openly discussed.

Frames are mental structures that allow us to understand the world. They are pre-linguistic — in the realm of concepts, not words. Framing is about characterizing values, concepts, and issues. Frames define the underlying problems, and by reframing one can point out when the real problems lie elsewhere.

Take the needed reframing of immigration from Mexico as a humanitarian crisis. An excellent article performing such reframing is “Dead in Their Tracks,” by Marc Cooper in the LA Weekly, February 22, 2006, which recounts the important humanitarian work of the Samaritan Patrol — a church group helping immigrants in need of medical care — and the harassment and arrest of the Samaritan Patrol by the Border Patrol.

One of the most basic results in cognitive science is that, for the most part, the use of conceptual frames is unconscious. Even people who are good at conceptual framing may not even be aware they are doing it. Marc Cooper is a good case in point. The effective reframer of “Dead in Their Tracks” attacked us last week for engaging in his own skilled but unconscious activity — “framing.” Cooper writes proudly, “Last year I bashed linguist and amateur political analyst George Lakoff for his absurd suggestion that “progressives” should concentrate on what he called “framing” of the issues. … Man, was I ever right to call him out.”

Our job at Rockridge is to make the public conscious of the framing in political discourse — including their own framing. Marc Cooper is a good example of what goes wrong when you engage in framing but are not aware of what you are doing. Cooper repeatedly misframes framing “as a matter of simple wordplay” (in The Atlantic Monthly, March 15, 2005). Lakoff, and the staff of the Rockridge Institute in general, talk about framing in terms of values, principles, and deep frames (that is, fundamental ideas that go across issue areas), and advise progressives to become conscious of their own deepest values and to use framing honestly and effectively to say what they really mean.

So called “tort reform” is a good example. Lakoff, in an interview on the Rockridge website discusses “tort reform” as an attempt by the Right to destroy the civil justice system, which is the last resort the public has when corporations, lacking regulation, harm the public. In the civil justice system, trial lawyers function as police and prosecutors and their fees pay for the detective work and the preparation of the case — and the capping of fees would de-finance the system and remove the public’s last resort in dealing with corporate malfeasance. Lakoff recommends that progressive tell the public about this reality and that a term like “public protection attorneys” would better fit the role of protecting the public than merely “trial lawyers.” Cooper misses Lakoff’s point that introducing such terms depends upon effectively and honestly characterizing the nature of the civil justice system — a deep reframing. Just introducing the words in the absence of the deep framing would have no effect and couldn’t possibly work.

What happens if someone seriously and deeply misframes framing as the mere use of words, as “spin”? Can you just correct him by telling him what framing really is? Cognitive science tells us the answer: Probably not. The frames will trump the facts — even if the subject matter is framing itself.

The misframing of framing, whether by Rush Limbaugh and George Will or by Marc Cooper, is a fact we must deal with. Our approach to clarify the cognitive science is to distinguish deep versus surface frames. Deep frames are mental structures through which we conceptualize our values, principles, and fundamental ideas. Surface frames are the frames that are evoked by words and slogans, like tax relief or the culture of corruption. The surface frames only make sense given the deep frames. The Right has been much better at getting their deep frames out there, which is why they have so much more success with their surface frames.


Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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