A report from the Brookings Institute, How the media has framed the immigration debate

This was a VERY long article, but truly excellent.  Amazingly, the Brookings Institute, decade by decade, sheds light on the how the media has framed the debate regarding immigration.  I found myself wondering, how is it that American policy has been reduced to sound bites and simple catch phrases. Lou Dobbs says there is a crisis and we believe him? Where are the moderate voices of reason, described within this Brookings Institute report? What really stood out to me, was their analysis that a comprehensive conversation regarding immigration, legal and illegal, was simply not taking place within the larger context of American economy. What was happening within our economy that was allowing for such the large flow of immigrants, including those who were not entering through legal channels? Where is the discussion regarding the housing boom and the need for additional labor? What about the need for high tech employees that this country needs in order to continue competing in a global economy? The media is complicit in promoting the belief that there is an us vs them. Whether it be citizens vs. government or legal vs legal,  somehow the more complicated resolution of immigration has been left behind for the easier to write, us vs them paradigm. In order to come to any meaningful conclusion regarding immigration, we must first rewrite the narrative of immigration. I will add, that although the media may be simplifying this issue, our politicians have shown little initiative to leave behind the politics and search for a comprehensive solution that so many middle of the road Americans desire. 


The U.S. media have hindered effective policy making on immigration for decades, and their impact has been increasing in recent years as a result of an ongoing evolution in the media industry. Deeply ingrained practices in American journalism have produced a narrative that conditions the public to associate immigration with illegality, crisis, controversy and government failure. Meanwhile, new voices of advocacy on the media landscape have succeeded in mobilizing segments of the public in opposition to policy initiatives, sometimes by exaggerating the narrative of immigration told by traditional news organizations. The combined effect is to promote stalemate on an issue that is inherently difficult to resolve and that is likely to resurface on the public agenda when a new administration and a new Congress take office in January 2009.

These findings emerge from an examination of how the media have covered immigration going back to 1980 with a special focus on the extended policy debates in 2006 and 2007, which collapsed without producing any significant legislation. Supporters of radically different positions in those debates agree that the current immigration system is broken; one need not favor any particular outcome to conclude that stalemate is a mark of failure in the policy process. Many actors in Washington and beyond played a role in that outcome, and the intent here is not to argue that the media were the decisive players or to rank their influence relative to others. The objective is to understand how the media conditioned public opinion and the policy landscape, and the results show that the media—both traditional journalism and new forms of expression—need to be considered among the factors that contribute to polarization and distrust.

While the immigrant population has grown vastly larger over the years, the terms of the policy debate over immigration have hardly changed in 30 years. Improving border controls; halting the employment of unauthorized migrants; dealing with temporary workers; determining legalization plans for people in the country illegally; refiguring visa categories for legal immigrants—all these topics have been debated repeatedly since at least 1980, and some have actually been legislated. In the meantime, however, the media have undergone a radical transformation marked by declining audiences for the daily newspapers and broadcast network evening news programs that once dominated the information flow and by rising new forms of news delivery via cable television, talk radio and the Internet.

In the recent immigration debates of 2006 and 2007, the new media landscape also amplified discrete sectors of public opinion to help block legislative action. In the first act of this drama, the Spanish-language media helped mobilize huge crowds to protest legislation passed by the House that would have mandated an unprecedented crackdown on unauthorized migrants including their jailing on felony charges. The protest marches of spring 2006 were one factor that pushed a bipartisan group of senators to present a counterproposal whose passage kept the other legislation from moving forward.

The new media voices played an even more significant role in the second act of the legislative drama. In 2007, conservative voices on cable television news shows, talk radio and the Internet mobilized opposition to provisions of a Senate bill that would have offered legal status, or “amnesty” as it was labeled, to unauthorized migrants. Meanwhile, liberal commentators and bloggers paid relatively little attention to the issue. Conservatives in the media successfully defined the terms of the debate in a way that helped lead to the eventual collapse of efforts to reach a compromise.

Both cases represented a triumph of “no!” These media sectors proved adept at promoting opposition to specific measures, but they have shown no comparable ability to advance an affirmative agenda. The media have given voice to strongly felt and well-defined views at either end of the policy spectrum. Meanwhile, the broad middle in American public opinion favors a mix of policy options on immigration, but that segment’s views are marked by uncertainty and anxiety about the topic and skepticism about government’s ability to handle it. This reflects the way the immigration narrative has been framed by the media for a generation.

An important but unresolved question is whether these same dynamics apply to other issues that share certain characteristics with immigration. Comprehensive reform of health care and energy policies, like immigration, require the mediation of many competing economic and regional interests while also assuaging strongly felt ideological differences. If the effects of media transformation can be generalized, the recent failures to reach grand bargains on immigration should serve as a cautionary tale.