To understand the barriers and facilitators of change in the U.S. immigration landscape, it is necessary to consider the confluence of powerful forces present in American politics today. Indeed, in recent years, the United States has undergone major shifts affecting its political and policymaking landscape due to a convergence of several factors — some older and persistent, such as structural racism; others that have been building over several decades, such as income and wealth inequality; and others that are transitory but impactful, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these forces together have led to deep political polarization and hindered the political consensus necessary for policy change on social justice issues — including the consideration of more rational and open immigration policy.
At the federal level, for example, the narrow party margins in the House and Senate have made it difficult to pass policies that could be associated with the concept of social justice — where a more open immigration system might have a place. Moreover, there is a growing divide between federal policy and state policy. For example, the Supreme Court has recently expanded states’ rights in areas such as abortion, gun rights and regulation, the separation of church and state, and climate change, changing the balance of power between the federal government and the states. This has resulted in blue states implementing more progressive policies and red states retrenching to more conservative policies. These political divides between branches of government and between federal and state policy preferences have created very hard obstacles to immigration policy reform and made political advocacy more problematic.
In this political environment, change in immigration policy, a third-rail issue, has become even more difficult. There is a low probability that a consensus for change on immigration might be possible either horizontally (between the federal branches of government) or vertically (between the federal government and state governments). But advocates are continuing to work toward immigration policy reform.
This policy brief is based on a conversation with Katherine B. McGuire, chief advocacy officer of the American Psychological Association (APA) and a special guest at the Baker Institute Migration Initiative’s “Conversations on Immigration” event on April 25, 2023. McGuire suggested that, instead of losing sight of their goals, immigration reform advocates learn to navigate today’s political environment and use opportunities to push for progressive legislation on immigration by engaging with policymakers on both sides of the aisle as well as their constituents.
According to McGuire, immigration reform advocates should work to
- Understand the political landscape at both the federal and state levels.
- Find common ground with members of Congress.
- Soften resistance at the state level.
- Educate the American public on the harmful mis- and disinformation about immigrants through storytelling, a powerful tool to prime the political landscape for change — the key objective of advocacy work.
Directing Advocacy Efforts at the Right Political Actors
For advocates of policy change, a good understanding of the political landscape is essential. For example, the 118th Congress is characterized by razor-thin party margins, with Republicans holding the House and Democrats holding the Senate. While there may be slightly more common ground on non-social justice policy issues (e.g., the compromise on the debt ceiling), complex third-rail matters, such as immigration, often interact in complex ways with views at the state level, making it difficult for members of Congress to find agreement among themselves. In this polarized environment, passing bipartisan legislation on immigration in Congress is challenging, and advocating for it may be even harder.
This complexity is further reflected in the state-level political landscape, which today generally leans Republican: There are 22 Republican state government trifectas (in which Republicans hold the governorship and control both of the state’s legislative chambers), 17 Democratic trifectas, and 11 divided state governments. In the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats gained three trifectas, primarily due to disagreements regarding abortion rights, while Republicans lost one trifecta.
Still, even in the reddest of states, where policymakers tend to favor more restrictive immigration policies, there is an opportunity for immigration advocates to push for change. This may come down to the state level. If the work is done effectively there, it is possible that the trend toward increasing state power, might result in a greater willingness from a state congressional delegation to compromise on Capitol Hill. As such, mobilization at the state level is vital, because it will play a crucial role in determining the outcome of advocacy-related battles. This is especially the case for immigration, which already has a high level of public support. This, of course, assumes that change can bubble up.
Besides the raw numbers of the political divide, understanding the political ideologies underlying each state’s decision-making is crucial for formulating strategies for migration policy advocacy. Douglas Brian Sosnik, a political strategist who advised the Bill Clinton administration, created a political “playing field” to aid in this process: This playing field places states on a spectrum from left (progressive) to middle (moderate) to right (conservative). For instance, Texas, which is typically conservative on social justice issues, is considered moderate due to its business climate, which attracts left-leaning voters. It is also, despite its conservative political leanings, a state where immigration is generally understood and even welcome. Thus, the assumption that legislators in a red state will necessarily and automatically oppose a less-restrictive immigration policy might lead advocates to miss opportunities for advocacy hidden at the state level.
The “Diploma Divide:” Understanding Demographics as an Asset for Advocacy
Beyond the party divide and the ideological landscape, advocates should also consider key opportunities hidden in demography. The connections between voter attitudes and education, income, and race have significant implications for political advocacy, and this is certainly true for promoting changes in immigration policy. According to a recent analysis of census data conducted by The Atlantic and the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California, several important factors have played a dominant role in determining election results for the United States House of Representatives — educational attainment, income level, and race identity among them.
For example, almost 75% of House Democrats represent districts where more than one-third of white adults hold a college degree, exceeding the national average. Meanwhile, over 60% of House Democrats hold districts where median incomes exceed the national average of $65,000. When it comes to race, Democrats currently hold a seven-seat advantage in districts with high diversity and low levels of white college graduates, compared to the 28-seat advantage they had in 2009. For any immigration advocate, representatives in these districts are natural allies in pushing for policy change. By contrast, Republicans are more likely to represent House districts with lower education and income levels. However, in many Republican districts, immigrants are valued because they perform work in industries such as agriculture, where their contributions are both seen and recognized. This also presents opportunities for advocates of immigration reform.
These demographic realities, often known collectively as the “diploma divide,” have evidently created a split between the Democratic and Republican parties — something that is reflected in their approaches to public policy issues such as immigration. Yet, despite these gaps, there is still hope for pro-immigration support in the Republican Party, particularly in Republican districts with diverse populations or where industries employ large numbers of immigrants. Some immigration advocates, for example, predict that immigration policy will likely be a hotly contested issue in key states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Arizona, and Michigan — where polls show a high degree of support for immigration — and that it could ultimately determine the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.
Speaking Out: What Does Congress Want to Hear?
While statistics and hard data, infographics, and other such illustrations are useful, storytelling is an especially effective way to communicate when doing advocacy work. This holds true in regard to immigration. Storytelling helps to improve our understanding of human situations, which are partly the product of policy, and aids in our internalization of the need for change. It also reduces resistance and increases empathy. The human element of lived experiences — as opposed to statistical data — becomes more difficult for audiences to dismiss. A number is easy to ignore; a story is much more difficult to disregard.
Thus, when it comes to thorny policy issues, such as immigration, it is important to help Congress recognize the significance of immigrants — and their stories — to their families, to their communities, to the economy, etc. Accounts from employers who hire and understand the value of immigration — including their personal stories and the role played by immigrants in their businesses, for example — can also be meaningful.
With the importance of storytelling in mind, in 2019, the APA provided Congress with research and testimonies on the psychological trauma experienced by migrants and particularly families and children separated at the U.S.-Mexico border; this helped gain support from some Republican lawmakers toward resolving the particular matter at hand.
On Capitol Hill, Congress often hears testimony on border security. When the subject is spoken about impersonally, the political atmosphere can be expected to — and often does — become charged. Introducing a story, however, can lessen the charge in the environment. Of course, immigrants are often portrayed negatively to gain votes — but a “positive” immigrant story can counteract the effect of a negative portrayal and can do so more effectively than an infographic. Such personal stories will become even more important as we approach the 2024 elections.
Moreover, each chamber of Congress is different; while anti-immigrant legislation is likely to come out of the House, it is unlikely to receive a Senate vote — especially because senators represent entire states instead of specific communities. Given the broader diversity of their constituencies compared to those of House representatives, they are more likely to be moved by stories. As such, advocates should not hesitate to converse with policymakers who hold opposing beliefs, especially by engaging them through storytelling that humanizes a narrative, to try to find common ground on immigration policy. It is of course important to meet representatives where they are in this regard — for example, by using stories about related topics that a member of Congress may be passionate about, such as human trafficking, or approaching the subject by raising their faith-based work.
Misinformation and Disinformation: Working with the Public
Mis- and disinformation often radicalize people and influence voters. Propagandists exploit the vulnerable and voiceless for a number of reasons and can spread confusion, fear, hatred, and prejudice. Online algorithms can also reinforce biases by widely spreading negative portrayals of vulnerable groups, including immigrants.
For example, a recent study found that search engines reproduce gender and race biases in mainstream media. The same can be said for immigration. In fact, the study specifically looked at image search results for terms such as “migrants,” “immigrants,” and “refugees.” Much of what came up conveyed primarily a negative view of immigrants and immigration — especially as it has played out at the southern U.S. border in recent years.
Advocates are responsible for counteracting such portrayals. For them, it is important to promote media literacy and learn how to recognize and preempt misinformation with tactics like pre-bunking and inoculation theory, which help to build mental resilience against media manipulation. This is a major task of advocacy that has become even more central as the country has spiraled into further political polarization.
Advocates also have to be alert to oscillating takes on the issue — especially in media appearances. It is common for there to be a difference between what politicians say publicly and what they believe privately — particularly in regard to immigration. (Advocates who visit Capitol Hill know this well.) As such, every immigration advocate should 1) recognize that many members of Congress try to appeal to voters that may be less sympathetic to immigration and 2) be prepared to propose solutions that advance a pro-immigration agenda while leaving room for them to do so.
The secret may be to dissect the issue into what is a federal matter and what is a state matter. In the end, it may be more valuable to address immigration at the state level rather than the federal level; Republicans tend to concentrate their efforts at state legislatures and may be freer to expand the scope of their position there, where they can assess whether they can also build consensus for change.
What Can Be Done?
Moving the immigration agenda forward is not easy — as any immigration advocate might testify. Of course, no policy change is easy. But there are some steps that advocates can take to make the environment more propitious for change. One such action is to seek common ground among very different positions held by policymakers. There is always an angle that can appeal to two opposite sides of an issue.
Advocates should share stories that elicit compassion, especially when a story is directly related to legislation and its provisions. For this, it is important to focus on the entry point. A good story always begins by breaking the ice — especially with something the audience can directly relate to. Without this, a conversation with a member of Congress or a state legislator will likely be more difficult. If a policymaker cares about mental health, for example, the entry point might relate to the stressors facing undocumented migrants, especially as exemplified by an individual’s story.
In addition, it is important to speak with both Democratic and Republican legislators. There is no other way to build and cultivate partnerships and coalitions for policy change. Partnerships and coalitions are, by definition, the confluence of points of view that are not always compatible. This is especially true about immigration. Engaging with members of both parties can also provide diverse perspectives from which common ground can be found. It is of almost no use to speak to policymakers on only one side of the aisle. A good advocate goes to where their personal views may be challenged, as that is where the opportunities for coalitions may be.
Advocacy in policymaking is never easy — and is often looked down upon, especially when political polarization is so extensive and deep that it also inhibits activism. Under these circumstances, advocating for policy change requires a great deal of creativity. This is particularly true because policy change is often the product of effective advocacy. As such, in a difficult political environment, innovative advocacy becomes even more essential, as its effectiveness often depends on advocates being more imaginative.
Today, immigration policy is a good testing ground for inventiveness in political advocacy. Certainly, immigration reform is long overdue, but it is also true that poor advocacy work is not likely to bring about change.
This report is part of the “Conversations on Migration” series from the Baker Institute Migration Initiative. The series intends to provide insight into current migration developments with the goal of informing advocacy and policy efforts and facilitating the expansion of collaborative networks of experts across disciplines.