Rising Above the Babble

Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton made news last week (on Cinco De Mayo) while addressing a group of students at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, by declaring that she would “fight for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship.” She distinguished herself from the Republican candidates: “Today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship.” She gave no details about who could get on the path to citizenship or how long and arduous a path it would be. She herself has not “clearly and consistently” spoken out in support of citizenship for unauthorized migrants. Otherwise, her words at Rancho High School would not be news. Indeed, Politico headlined the story as Clinton’s “pivot to the left,” implying that she has taken a new direction.

Expressions of support for “comprehensive immigration reform” can be a way to sidestep questions about what should be done to reform our immigration laws. The phrase is a focus-group tested formulation that aims to appeal to the center of the political spectrum and influence voters who may feel ambivalent about the issue. As political psychologist Drew Weston has observed:

In the debate over illegal immigration in the United States, politicians have employed phrases and images designed to elicit an emotional reaction. For example, “illegal alien” makes illegal immigrants not only “law breakers” but less human, in light of the connotations and alternative meanings of “alien.”

An effective counter-strategy for immigration advocates is to center the debate on “comprehensive immigration reform” or “fixing the broken immigration system.” Weston believes that the words that are used in a political message activate “networks of association” in the listener. These networks, he explains, are “sets of thoughts, feelings, images, memories, metaphors, values, and emotions that have become connected through time and experience, so that activating one part of the network unconsciously activates the rest.” Weston notes: “the political right in the United States has long understood that voters respond less to facts, figures, policy positions, and rational arguments than to the emotions associations create.”

Bishop John C. Wester, recently appointed by Pope Francis to be archbishop of Santa Fe, leads us to consider the personal dimension of comprehensive immigration reform. In addressing the Salt Lake City League of Women Voters, he said that, as human beings, we all “need to reflect on what we advocate for when we go see our representatives, why we say what we say, and what is it that we’re saying, and how open we are and those kinds of questions.” Bishop Wester supported President Obama’s executive action on immigration issued in November 2014, saying it was “high time something was done.” He remarked that the “immigration narrative is broken, dehumanizing to immigrants,” and, referring to the undocumented immigrants, he said, “We need to recognize them as human beings who enhance our society and our process of integration.”

If Clinton wants to take leadership on this issue, she will have to do more than express support for “comprehensive immigration reform.” She will have to explain what she means when she uses those words and what immigration reform means for the United States. She might, at least, follow Bishop Wester’s example and adopt humanization of the immigrant population as an element of that reform. She might say, as Bishop Wester told the League of Women Voters, “reform has to begin with me.” To be a leader on this issue, however, the elements of reform that Clinton chooses to emphasize must be the things that she believes, actions that reflect what she values and what she would have us, as a nation, uphold. By failing to do that, she will forfeit the opportunity for leadership, and her inevitable words about “fixing the broken immigration system” will not rise above the babble of tested phrases.

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