Framing Immigration: An Overview of Persuasive Messaging Strategies for Political Communicators

Download a PDF Version of the research implications here.

Aileen Cardona-Arroyo
Ph.D. Candidate (Cornell University)
LatinoCLD/SMU Latino Politics

I. When and How to Talk About Immigration Protests in The Media

The onslaught of an anti-immigrant and anti-Latino/a environment in the United States during the last two decades has been met by protests and demonstrations against nativist legislation, as well as the U.S. Congress’ failure to pass immigration reform. The goal of these activities is to raise awareness about immigration and pressure elected officials to take action. But how does the public perceive protests? What effect (if any) do they have in shifting public opinion on immigration? Do Latinos/as and non-Latinos/as react differently to stories of immigrant protests?

The analysis of a 2014 original survey experiment and 2006 LNS survey data of Latinos/as and non-Latinos/as suggest two conclusions:

  1. News of immigrant protests increases Latinos/as’ welcoming policy attitudes
  2. News of immigrant protests increases non-Latinos/as’ restrictive policy attitudes

Recommendations for Immigration Messaging Strategists and Activists

  • Highlight immigration activism in media outlets that cater to Latinos/as
  • Avoid focusing on protests when speaking to mainstream media—particularly those with a predominantly non-Latino/a White audience
  • When speaking to a Latino/a audience about immigration, focus on Latino/a political activism and political participation
  • When speaking to a non-Latino/a audience about immigration, focus on immigrants’ contributions to the United States in the economy, education, communities etc.

II. How to Frame the Contributions of (Latino/a) Immigrants

Pro-immigrant organizations and activists have pushed for putting a human face on the issue of immigration in order to sway public opinion toward welcoming immigration attitudes. These efforts have led to news articles and televised reports that focus on the struggles and achievements of one or a few immigrants. Are immigrant personal narratives a persuasive communication strategy? How does it compare to their opponents’ strategies?

The analysis of a 2014 original survey experiment and content analysis of every immigration story published in the NYT and WT in 2006, 2010, and 2015 suggest three conclusions:

  1. Anti-immigrant news about immigrants are overwhelmingly group-centric
  2. Pro-immigrant news relies heavily on personal narratives of individual immigrants
  3. Group-centric news on immigration are more persuasive than personal narratives

Recommendations for Immigration Messaging Strategists and Activists

  • Personal narrative stories might be a compelling strategy to mobilize immigrant sympathizers, but it is not the most persuasive strategy when addressing the broader American public.
  • For those who hold negative perceptions of immigrants, personal stories of Latino immigrants’ success can be easily dismissed as exceptions. Thus, when responding to group-centric anti-immigrant arguments on immigration, use group-centric positive arguments.
  • Overall, persuasive political communication on immigration focuses on immigrant contributions as a group—not on individual members of the group.