For supporters of immigration and immigrants, crossing the pandemic portal requires a strategy reset, one that prioritizes gaining new supporters in a critical segment of American public opinion and avoids unforced errors.
I came to this realization gradually after having spent most of 2017 and 2018 thinking about how an explicit anti-immigrant agenda could gain traction and be electorally successful in a diverse nation like ours. Then, in 2019, I honed recommendations for how to defend against the success of grievance politics. The result is Change Is Hard, a paper explaining my research findings and recommendations, which was released in January of 2020. Although COVID ushered in an entirely new era in dramatic fashion, the key insights from my research are highly relevant in a post-COVID world.
So as immigration and identity issues rise to the fore once again, in the midst of a global pandemic, I’ve updated my top takeaways to reflect the new challenges we are facing.
America has experienced nativist waves before.
The post-2016 period isn’t our first nativist convulsion and it won’t be our last. One hundred years ago, for example, America shut the door to immigration for 40 years after the last great immigration wave. Today America is home to about 45 million or 14% foreign-born individuals, nearly as high a percentage as the peak at the turn of 20th century. Demographic change of this magnitude can be destabilizing, especially when it’s not managed. If you compound that with fears of virus spread, conspiracy theories about the source of the virus, and a demagogue who pits immigrants against the US-born, that’s the perfect recipe for growing nativism and isolationism.
Change is hard and needs to be managed.
The immigrant justice movement has been laser-focused on the challenges immigrants and refugees face coming to America and settling here, one type of change, but hasn’t spent enough time in receiving communities, appreciating how longer term residents were processing the many changes taking place around them, transforming their neighborhoods, and making some of them feel like ‘strangers’ in their own land. As it turns out, those changes were priming them to be fearful and anxious, and messages from the anti-immigrant right wing were resonating. The pandemic will undoubtedly magnify the fear, anxiety, and loss many long-term residents were already feeling.
White identity is solidifying with increased diversity.
An unexpected result of growing diversity in America is the sharpening of white identity, with some whites behaving like a racial minority. Destabilizing changes — from demographics to technology to pandemics — are the tinder ethno-nationalists exploit to promote white nationalism and dehumanize groups deemed “other”. The pandemic provides a perfect opportunity to scapegoat, shut doors and weave conspiracies that blame the “other” for our troubles.
The extremes dominate the immigration debate.
Proponents and opponents of immigration feed off one another and eliminate nuance and complexity. But most Americans (about two thirds) are at neither extreme and hold conflicted views about immigrants and immigration. They are what More In Common calls the Exhausted Majority. They may support DACA and a tight border; they may support high but not low skilled immigration; they may welcome refugees but fear asylum seekers; they may want to bring in foreign doctors and nurses but support an immigration moratorium. It’s complicated, but the way the highly polarized immigration debate plays out usually leaves little room for nuance or contradiction and that means it’s hard to reach this large swath of the public.
The immigration debate is actually a culture proxy war.
As much as policy matters and there are numerous ways to improve significantly upon our current laws and regulatory regime, policy debates won’t persuade the public we need to reach, and facts themselves are of limited utility in a world where news sources reinforce existing biases — on both sides. This is still true in a post-COVID world. To persuade the public that immigration is in the national interest, we must find ways to relate to people’s conflicted views about their identity and the role immigrants play in our society, all in the context of destabilizing change.
Protect democracy first.
Immigration is a prime wedge issue being used to tear Americans apart. The way supporters of immigrants and immigration play defense and offense in this moment must not exacerbate polarization since that weakens our democracy, causes alienation and distrust of our institutions, and plays to the strengths of demagogues and nationalists.
Engage beyond the base and build solidarity.
We know that the way to defuse tension around demographic change is to listen to members of receiving communities, particularly in more homogeneous rural areas and the Heartland. We need to engage in many more respectful conversations with skeptics in the middle to learn why they are anxious about newcomers and try to bring them along. And we need to use that knowledge to inform new narrative strategies. So — to grow the base we must leave the echo chamber and develop new muscles to tackle these challenging conversations with honesty and without judgment. This will be very difficult to do in person as long as social distancing is necessary. So we’ll need to find other ways to reach these critical audiences.
Do more culture change work.
Since immigration is above all a culture issue, we need narrative and culture change strategies to promote norms, values and behaviors that affirm our pluralistic ideals, our interdependence and our shared fates. Narratives that affirm unity, create space for complexity, and connect immigration to broader themes about how to uplift ALL Americans are critical right now. And it goes without saying that we need to acknowledge the pain and fear all Americans are feeling every time we talk about immigrants or immigration.
Use an inclusive narrative that doesn’t alienate.
We should beware of making immigrants and refugees into straw men or superheroes — what I call immigrant exceptionalism. We should communicate how “they” are “us.” While we can uplift immigrant contributions and the unique challenges facing immigrants, we must be careful to plant immigrants firmly in our social fabric, not elevate them above ordinary Americans. We need to lift up a solidarity narrative, not one of distinctiveness that may inadvertently “other” immigrants and set them apart — casting them as targets of envy or disdain or as sources of competition.
Organize + resource for the right fight.
That means making sure that a solid part of the immigrant justice movement works with the Exhausted Majority, has enough resources to do it, and is supported, not criticized for it. Without a diversified approach that is able to reach a critical middle, the movement will simply be speaking to itself. That’s just not enough right now.
The COVID Twist
COVID is change of immense proportions. Overnight, it has catapulted us into a new and frightening era. It has dramatically narrowed the range of the possible in our old paradigm. I contend that we need to accept that we are now in a new paradigm and imagine new possibilities.
The virus causes fear, anxiety, and loss. It erodes Americans’ sense of security and safety and creates economic pressures that can easily devolve into zero sum thinking. This perfect storm packs intense headwinds for immigration proponents.
The way to blunt this effect is to use COVID to change public perceptions of who is part of the “in-group” and who isn’t, to create a solidarity narrative with immigrants seen as part of the solution and part of the foundational fabric of our communities.
Suzette Brooks Masters is Senior Strategist at the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council.