Illegal Immigration is a Red Herring

This article was originally published by Eric Haas and Nadine Dixon of the Rockridge Institute on April 7, 2008.

“Economic refugee” is a better descriptor than “illegal immigrant.” It’s more accurate. But we never hear it. And most people are probably uncomfortable using it. Why is that?

We received a question recently on “illegal immigration.” How should progressives frame this issue?

Progressive frames are rooted in empathy and responsibility and the understanding that life is interdependent; “no one is an island” and our interdependence is increasingly becoming globalized. From empathy and responsibility flow gratitude and respect for all that we receive from one another. We thrive together when we help each other to prosper. We are part of an international community.

The result of this thinking is that progressives believe that people deserve the opportunity to work hard in places that are free of hazards and that their hard work provide them with enough wages to get food on the table, a roof over their heads, medical care when they are sick, and an education for their children, in neighborhoods where the water and air are clean.

But progressives also understand that many people in the U.S. and around the world are not able to live this way. So, in the progressive mode of thought, empathy and responsibility begin with those who most need our protection and empowerment. This is only fair; it’s a matter of human dignity. This is why, for example, progressives have acted to protect low-wage workers—our most vulnerable people—through increases in the minimum wage and strong work safety regulations that help promote livable jobs.

Progressives should reject the conservative emphasis on “illegal” immigration. Calling people “illegal immigrants” is as misleading as calling jaywalkers “illegal walkers” and speeders “illegal drivers.” “Illegal” does terrible damage. It stigmatizes hard working people who are desperate to provide for their families. They come here and struggle to make a new life for themselves. And as they do, they make our lives better. Referring to immigrants, George W. Bush stated, “this economy could not function without them.” But calling immigrants illegals hides these contributions. Worse still, the damaging stigma spreads. Constant repetition cements this false stereotype until it begins to tarnish everyone from a similar ethnic background. “Economic refugee” is a better descriptor. It’s more accurate. But we never hear it. And most people are probably uncomfortable using it. Why is that?

Because the phrase “illegal immigration” dominates our immigration discussions. Presenting immigration as an isolated and “illegal” issue triggers the idea that the world is an inherently dangerous place, and that America’s culture, its place in the world, and its prosperity are under attack. This is a deep conservative frame that also divides progressives. These frames present the U.S. as a container of limited resources that people must fight over. Your dreams must come at my expense. Empathy and cooperation are diminished. Effective solutions are lost.

When immigration is discussed as “illegal immigration,” the solution that logically flows from this framing is The Secure Fence Act of 2006, which authorized the construction of 700 miles of double reinforced fence across parts of the Mexican border with California and Texas, along with more raids, jailings, and deportations.

But we know this will never work. It’s a red herring. A 700 mile wall on a 2,000 mile border will never stop people from crossing. And, it won’t stop people from simply going “underground” when their visas expire. Further, ending “illegal immigration” by itself won’t solve the problems we are really concerned about: not the huge national debt, stagnant economy, crumbling infrastructure, high urban unemployment, and the lack of livable jobs; not the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the lack of affordable housing; not our overdependence on fossil fuels, global climate change, water shortages, and deforestation; 47 million Americans without health care, and so on. None of these problems will be solved through mass deportations (even if that were possible). These problems require much more: better banking regulations, returning the minimum wage to at least half the average wage and enforcing work safety regulations as steps toward livable jobs, universal, single payer health care, and zoning regulations that promote sustainable communities, among others.

To solve our problems, progressives must expand the immigration debate by explicitly placing immigration within these larger societal issues. If we framed this issue as one involving “economic refugees,” our understanding of the immigration, societal problems and their solutions would be different.

At the same time, progressives must recognize that fear is a powerful framing technique. It is more difficult to convince people to support a policy that moves the country toward a positive outcome, such as cooperation and prosperity, than to move away from a negative one, such as the fear of an immigrant “invasion.”

Here are some recommendations for promoting progressive frames based on the concept of “economic refugee”:

Make the progressive frames explicit. Talk first and foremost about prosperity and how we achieve it as a country united and working together in an increasingly globalized world. State that we must explicitly end cheap labor exploitation. Begin with empathy for the middle and lower classes, including gratitude and respect for the necessary work that people do everyday for the United States. This includes all immigrants, both with and without visas.

Repeat that we are responsible to each other for our prosperity. That requires protection and support through government programs from fire fighters to the EPA and schools to the courts. This must include and be extended to the middle and lower classes, including all immigrants. Then we all benefit together.

Stop leading with security. It is of secondary importance (at most) and will have little practical effect.

Use progressive labels, such as “economic refugees.” Stop using “illegal immigrants” and explicitly challenge it when used by others.

State progressive understandings of the contested concepts in the immigration debate. Security, for example, requires more than walls to seal the border. They are pointless alone. Managing the flow of people across the border requires reducing economic and environmental pressures abroad and at home. Canada is an excellent example. Its economic prosperity means there is little or no incentive for its citizens to emigrate to the U.S. Add in enforcement of worker protections in the U.S. and you reduce the incentives for employers to hire and exploit immigrant and U.S.-born workers alike.

State the known facts—they are on the progressive side! In other words, we can act right by acting smart. We must protect the lower and middle classes against conservatives using immigration, especially “illegal immigration,” for their continued exploitation. Immigrants, whatever their legal status, are nearly all law abiding, contributors to the U.S. We depend on them. Properly managed immigration levels can help support prosperity for all in the U.S. In other words, we are connected across the world. We must work together to prosper together.

Changing the immigration debate is not a simple task. Immigration is a complicated issue and an emotional one. To implement effective policies, progressives must change the “common sense” that surrounds immigration. Progressives must understand and communicate a progressive vision and place immigration policies within it.

We have described some key aspects of the frames that structure progressive policies on immigration, but there is still more. Look for our upcoming paper describing the logic of the immigration debate, entitled To Respect and Protect: Expanding the Discourse on Immigration.