The Framing of Immigration
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson
Framing is at the center of the recent immigration debate. Simply framing it as about “immigration” has shaped its politics, defining what count as “problems” and constraining the debate to a narrow set of issues. The language is telling. The linguistic framing is remarkable: frames for illegal immigrant, illegal alien, illegals, undocumented workers, undocumented immigrants, guest workers, temporary workers, amnesty, and border security. These linguistic expressions are anything but neutral. Each framing defines the problem in its own way, and the hence constrains the solutions needed to address that problem.
The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, we will analyze the framing used in the public debate. Second, we suggest some alternative framing to highlight important concerns left out of the current debate. Our point is to show that the relevant issues go far beyond what is being discussed, and that acceptance of the current framing impoverishes the discussion.
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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 lobbyists.
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,...
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