The Framing of Immigration
By George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson
On May 15th, in an address from the Oval Office, President Bush
presented his proposal for "comprehensive immigration reform."
The term "immigration reform" evokes an issue-defining
conceptual frame The Immigration Problem Frame a
frame that imposes a structure on the current situation, defines
a set of problems with that situation, and circumscribes
the possibility for "solutions."
"Reform," when used in politics, indicates there is
a pressing issue that needs to be addressed take "medicare
reform," "lobbying reform," "social security
reform." The noun that's attached to reform "immigration"
points to where the problem lies. Whatever noun is attached
to reform becomes the locus of the problem and constrains
what counts as a solution.
To illustrate, take "lobbying reform." In the wake
of the Jack Abramoff scandal, "lobbying reform" was
all the talk in the media and on Capitol Hill. The problem defined
by this frame has to do with lobbyists. As a "lobbyist"
problem, the solutions focused on Congressional rules regarding
lobbyists. The debate centered around compensated meals, compensated
trips, access by former Congressmen (who inevitably become lobbyists)
to the floor of the Senate and House of representatives, lobbying
disclosure, lobbyists' access to Congressional staff and the period
of time between leaving the Congress and becoming a registered
Indeed, if the reform needed is "lobbying reform,"
these are reasonable solutions. But, the term "Congressional
ethics reform" would have framed a problem of a much different
nature, a problem with Congressmen. And it would allow very different
reforms to count as solutions. After all, lobbyists are powerless
if there's nobody to accept a free meal, fly on a private plane,
play a round of golf in the Bahamas and, most importantly, accept
the political contributions lobbyists raise on their behalf from
special-interests with billions of dollars in business before
the federal Government. A solution could, for example, have been
Full Public Financing of Elections and free airtime for political
candidates as part of the licensing of the public's airwaves to
private corporations. The lobbying reform framing
of the issue precluded such considerations from discussion, because
they don't count as solutions to the lobbying problem.
Issue-defining frames are powerful.
Immigration reform also evokes an issue-defining
frame. Bush, in his speech, pointed out the problems that this
frame defines. First, the Government has not been in complete
control of its borders. Second, millions are able to sneak
across our border seeking to make money. Finally, once here,
illegal immigrants sometimes forge documents to get work, skirting
labor laws, and deceiving employers who attempt to follow the
law. They may take jobs away from legal immigrants and ordinary
Americans, bear children who will be American citizens even in
they are not, and use local services like schools and hospitals,
which may cost a local government a great deal. This is his definition
of the problem in the Immigration Reform frame.
This definition of the problem focuses entirely on the immigrants
and the administrative agencies charged with overseeing immigration
law. The reason is that these are the only roles present in the
Immigration Problem Frame.
Bush's comprehensive solution entirely concerns the
immigrants, citizenship laws, and the border patrol. And, from
the narrow problem identified by framing it as an immigration
problem, Bush's solution is comprehensive. He has at least
addressed everything that counts as a problem in the immigration
But the real problem with the current situation runs broader
and deeper. Consider the issue of Foreign Policy Reform, which
focuses on two sub-issues:
* How has US foreign policy placed, or kept, in power oppressive
governments which people are forced to flee?'
* What role have international trade agreements had in creating
or exacerbating people's urge to flee their homelands? If capital
is going to freely cross borders, should people and labor be able
to do so as well, going where globalization takes the jobs?
Such a framing of the problem would lead to a solution involving
the Secretary of State, conversations with Mexico and other Central
American countries, and a close examination of the promises of
NAFTA, CAFTA, the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank to raise standards
of living around the globe. It would inject into the globalization
debate a concern for the migration and displacement of people,
not simply globalization's promise for profits. This is not addressed
when the issue is defined as the immigration problem.
Bush's comprehensive solution does not address any
of these concerns. The immigration problem, in this light, is
actually a globalization problem.
Perhaps the problem might be better understood as a humanitarian
crisis. Can the mass migration and displacement of people from
their homelands at a rate of 800,000 people a year be understood
as anything else? Unknown numbers of people have died trekking
through the extreme conditions of the Arizona and New Mexico desert.
Towns are being depopulated and ways of life lost in rural Mexico.
Fathers feel forced to leave their families in their best attempt
to provide for their kids. Everyday, boatloads of people arrive
on our shores after miserable journeys at sea in deplorable conditions.
As a humanitarian crisis, the solution could involve The UN or
the Organization of American States. But these bodies do not have
roles in the immigration frame, so they have no place in an immigration
debate. Framing this as just an immigration problem
prevents us from penetrating deeper into the issue.
The current situation can also be seen as a civil rights problem.
The millions of people living here who crossed illegally are for
most intents and purposes Americans. They work here. They pay
taxes here. Their kids are in school here. They plan to raise
their families here. For the most part, they are assimilated into
the American system, but are forced to live underground and in
the shadows because of their legal status. They are denied ordinary
civil rights. The immigration problem framing overlooks
their basic human dignity.
Perhaps most pointedly, the immigration problem frame
blocks an understanding of this issue as a cheap labor issue.
The undocumented immigrants allow employers to pay low wages,
which in turn provide the cheap consumer goods we find at WalMart
and McDonalds. They are part of a move towards the cheap lifestyle,
where employers and consumers find any way they can to save a
dollar, regardless of the human cost. Most of us partake in this
cheap lifestyle, and as a consequence, we are all complicit in
the current problematic situation. Business, Consumers and Government
have turned a blind eye to the problem for so long because our
entire economy is structured around subsistence wages. Americans
won't do the work immigrants do not because they don't want to,
but because they won't do it for such low pay. Since Bush was
elected, corporate profits have doubled but there has been no
increase in wages. This is really a wage problem. The workers
who are being more productive are not getting paid for their increased
A solution to the immigration problem will not address
these concerns because they are absent from the immigration
Framing matters. The notion of this as an immigration problem
needing immigration reform is not neutral.
We now turn from conceptual framing of the current situation
to the words used and surface frames those words evoke.
The Illegal Frame
The Illegal Frame is perhaps the most commonly used frame within
the immigration debate. Journalists frequently refer to illegal
immigrants as if it were a neutral term. But the illegal
frame is highly structured. It frames the problem as one about
the illegal act of crossing the border without papers. As a consequence,
it fundamentally frames the problem as a legal one.
Think for a moment of a criminal. Chances are you thought about
a robber, a murderer or a rapist. These are prototypical criminals,
people who do harm to a person or their property. And prototypical
criminals are assumed to be bad people.
Illegal, used as an adjective in illegal immigrants
and illegal aliens, or simply as a noun in illegals
defines the immigrants as criminals, as if they were inherently
bad people. In conservative doctrine, those who break laws must
be punished or all law and order will break down. Failure
to punish is immoral.
Illegal alien not only stresses criminality, but
stresses otherness. As we are a nation of immigrants, we can at
least empathize with immigrants, illegal or not. Aliens,
in popular culture suggests nonhuman beings invading from outer
space completely foreign, not one of us, intent on taking
over our land and our way of life by gradually insinuating themselves
among us. Along these lines, the word invasion is
used by the Minutemen and right-wing bloggers to discuss the wave
of people crossing the border. Right-wing language experts intent
on keep them out suggest using the world aliens whenever
These are NOT neutral terms. Imagine calling businessmen who
once cheated on their taxes illegal businessmen. Imagine
calling people who have driven over the speed limit illegal
drivers. Is Tom Delay an illegal Republican?
By defining them as criminal, it overlooks the immense contributions
these immigrants subsequently make by working hard for low wages.
This is work that should more than make up for crossing the border.
Indeed, we should be expressing our gratitude.
Immigrants who cross outside of legal channels, though, are committing
offenses of a much different nature than the prototypical criminal.
Their intent is not to cause harm or to steal. More accurately,
they are committing victimless technical offenses, which we normally
consider violations. By invoking the illegal frame,
the severity of their offense is inflated.
The illegal frame particularly illegal alien
dehumanizes. It blocks the questions of: why are people
coming to the US, often times at great personal risk? What service
do they provide when they are here? Why do they feel it necessary
to avoid legal channels? It boils the entire debate down to questions
And it also ignores the illegal acts of employers. The problem
is not being called the Illegal Employer Problem, and employers
are not called illegals.
The Security Frame
The logical response to the wave of illegal
immigration becomes border security. The Government
has a responsibility to provide security for its citizens from
criminals and invaders. President Bush has asked to place the
National Guard on the border to provide security. Indeed, he referred
to security six times in his immigration speech.
Additionally, Congress recently appropriated money from the so-called
war on terror for border security with Mexico. This
should outrage the American public. How could Congress conflate
the war on terror with illegal immigration? Terrorists come to
destroy the American dream, immigrants both documented
and undocumented come to live the American dream. But the
conceptual move from illegal immigrant (criminal, evil), to border
security to a front of the war on terror, an ever expanding war
against evil in all places and all times wherever it is, is not
It is this understanding of the issue that also prompted the
House to pass the punitive HR 4437, which includes a provision
to make assisting illegal immigrants while they are here a felony.
It is seen as aiding and abetting a criminal.
But how could this be a security issue? Security
implies that there is a threat, and a threatened, and that the
threatened needs protection. These immigrants are not a physical
threat, they are a vital part of our economy and help America
function. They don't want to shoot us or kill us or blow us up.
They only want to weed our gardens, clean our houses, and cook
our meals in search of the American Dream. They must be recognized
as Americans making a vital impact and contribution. And when
they are, we will cease to tolerate the substandard conditions
in which they are forced to work and live. No American
indeed, no person should be treated so brashly.
Amnesty also fits the Illegal Frame. Amnesty is a
pardoning of an illegal action a show of either benevolence
or mercy by a supreme power. It implies that the fault lies with
the immigrants, and it is a righteous act for the US Government
to pardon them. This again blocks the reality that Government
looks the other way, and Business has gone much further
it has been a full partner in creating the current situation.
If amnesty is to be granted, it seems that amnesty should be given
to the businesses who knowingly or unknowingly hired the immigrants
and to the Government for turning a blind eye. But amnesty to
these parties is not considered, because it's an immigration
problem. Business has no role in this frame, and Government
can't be given amnesty for not enforcing its own laws.
The Undocumented Worker Frame
By comparison, the term undocumented worker activates
a conceptual frame that seems less accusatory and more compassionate
than the illegal frame. But a closer look reveals
fundamental problems with this framing.
First, the negative undocumented suggests that they
should be documented - that there is something wrong with them
if they are not. Second, worker suggests that their
function in America is only to work, not to be educated, have
families, form communities, have lives and vote! This term
was suggested by supporters of the immigrants as less noxious
than illegal aliens, and it is, but it has serious limitations.
It accepts the framing of immigrants as being here only to work.
Undocumented workers opened the door to Bush's new
proposal for temporary workers, who come to America
for a short time, work for low wages, do not vote, have few rights
and services, and then go home so that a new wave of workers without
rights, or the possibility of citizenship and voting, can come
This is thoroughly undemocratic and serves the financial and
electoral interests of conservatives.
This term replaced guest worker, which was ridiculed.
Imagine inviting some to dinner as a guest and then asking him
to pick the vegetables, cook the dinner, and wash the dishes!
Frames Not Taken
Most of the framing initiative has been taken by conservatives.
Progressives have so far abstained.
Progressives could well frame the situation as the Cheap Labor
Issue or the Cheap Lifestyle Issue. Most corporations use the
common economic metaphor of labor as a resource. There are two
kinds of employees the Assets (creative people and managers)
and Resources (who are relatively unskilled, fungible, interchangeable).
The American economy is structured to drive down the cost of resources
- that is, the wages of low-skilled, replaceable workers.
Immigration increases the supply of such workers and helps to
drive down wages. Cheap labor increases productivity
and profits for employers, and it permits a cheap lifestyle for
consumers who get low prices because of cheap labor. But these
are not seen as problems. They are benefits. And people
take these benefits for granted. They are not grateful to the
immigrants who make them possible. Gratitude. The word is hardly
ever spoken in the discourse over immigration.
Now consider the frame defined by the term economic refugee.
A refugee is a person who has fled their homeland, due to political
or social strife, and seeks asylum in another country. An economic
refugee would extend this category (metaphorically, not legally,
though it might be shifted legally in the future) to include people
fleeing their homeland as a result of economic insecurity.
Refugees are worthy of compassion. We should accept them into
our nation. All people are entitled to a stable political community
where they have reasonable life prospects to lead a fulfilling
life this is the essence of the Universal Declaration of
To frame the debate this way is to advance a progressive understanding.
While immigrants are here, they should be integrated into society
either temporarily, if conditions improve in their home country,
or permanently, if they can integrate and become productive members
of our nation. It will focus solutions on US foreign policy to
be about people, not profits. The only way the migration of people
from the South to the North will stop is when conditions are improved
there. As long as there is a pull to the North and a push from
the South, people will find their way over, no matter how big,
how long or how guarded a border fence is. (As an aside, who will
build that fence if all the undocumented immigrants leave?) Increased
security will force people to find ever more dangerous crossings,
as has already happened, without slowing the flow of immigrants.
More people will die unnecessarily.
Even if we could protect ourselves by sealing the
border and preventing businesses from hiring undocumented immigrants
by imposing hefty fines or prison sentences for violations, progressives
should not be satisfied. This still leaves those yearning to flee
their own countries in search of a better life in deplorable situations.
The problem is not dealt with by making the United States a gated
While these refugees are here, they must be treated with dignity
and respect. Indeed, if they cannot return home, we have a responsibility
to welcome them into ours. And we must treat them as Americans,
not as second-class citizens, as they are currently. If they are
here, they work hard and contribute to society, they are worthy
of a path to citizenship and the basic rights we are entitled
to (a minimum wage, education, healthcare, a social safety net).
Currently, the undocumented immigrants living amongst us are
un-enfranchised workers. They perform all the work, pay all the
duties, and receive many fewer of the benefits especially
voting rights. They must be given an opportunity to come out of
the shadows and lead normal lives as Americans.
The answer to this problem isn't an open-border.
The United States cannot take on the world's problems on its own.
Other affluent countries need to extend a humanitarian arm to
peoples fleeing oppressive economic circumstances as well. How
many immigrants the United States should be willing to accept
will ultimately be up to Congress.
In presenting these alternative frames, we want to inject humanitarian
concerns based in compassion and empathy into the debate. The
problem is dealing adequately with a humanitarian crisis that
extends well beyond the southern border. The focus must shift
from the immigrants themselves and domestic policy to a broader
view of why so many people flee, and how we can help alleviate
conditions in Mexico and Central America to prevent the flow in
the first place. Only by reframing of the debate can we incorporate
more global considerations. Immigration crises only arise from
Why It's Not a Single Issue
The wealth of frames in this debate has made it confusing. The
frames within the debate have been divisive. But the absence of
frames to counter the idea of the immigration problem
has also been divisive. Since each frame presents a different
component of the problem, it's worth noting who stresses which
frames, and which problems that frame define.
The conservative views:
* Law and Order: The illegal immigrants are criminals,
felons, and must be punished - rounded up and sent home. There
should be no amnesty. Otherwise all law will break down.
* The Nativists: The immigrants are diluting our culture, our
language, and our values.
* The Profiteers: We need cheap labor to keep our profits up and
our cheap lifestyle in place.
* The Bean Counters: We can't afford to have illegal immigrants
using our tax dollars on health, education, and other services.
* The Security Hounds: We need more border guards and a hi-tech
wall to guarantee our security.
* Progressivism Begins at Home: The immigrants are taking the
jobs of American works and we have to protect our workers.
* African-American Protectionists: Hispanic immigrants are threatening
* Provide a path to citizenship: The immigrants have earned citizenship
with their hard work, their devotion to American values, and their
contribution to our society.
* Foreign Policy Reformers: We need to pay attention to the causes
that drive others from their homelands.
* Wage supports: Institute a serious earned income tax credit
for Americans doing otherwise low-paying jobs, so that more Americans
will want to do them and fewer immigrants will be drawn here.
* Illegal Employers: The way to protect American workers and slow
immigration of unskilled workers is to prosecute employers of
We can see why this is such a complex problem and why there are
so splits within both the conservative and progressive ranks.
The immigration issue is anything but. It is a complex
melange of social, economic, cultural and security concerns
with conservatives and progressives split in different ways with
Framing the recent problem as an immigration problem
pre-empts many of these considerations from entering the debate.
As a consequence, any reform that solves the immigration
problem is bound to be a patchwork solution addressing bits and
pieces of much larger concerns. Bush's comprehensive reform is
comprehensive, but only for the narrow set of problems defined
in the immigration debate. It does not address many
of the questions with which progressives should be primarily concerned,
issues of basic experiential well-being and political rights.
Ultimately, the way the current immigration debate is going
focusing narrowly on domestic policy, executive agencies and the
immigrants we will be faced with the same problems 10 years
from now. The same long lines of immigrants waiting for legal
status will persist. Temporary workers will not return home after
their visas have expired, and millions of undocumented people
will live amongst us. Only by broadening the understanding of
the situation will the problem, or, rather, the multiple problems,
be addressed and adequately solved. The immigration problem does
not sit in isolation from other problems, but is symptomatic of
broader social and economic concerns. The framing of the immigration
problem must not pre-empt us from debating and beginning
to address these broader concerns.