How Should We Frame Immigration?


In my last blog post, I mentioned the criminalization of immigration. Don Flynn from the Migrant Rights Network has this post on the Guardian’s use of the expression “illegal immigrant.” He writes:
we are concerned by the way this term infers that entry and residence in the country can be associated with anti-social criminal action for which there are prima facie grounds for public concern.
State authorities in different parts of the world have made extensive use of their power to declare the residence and the movement of certain groups of people ‘illegal’. The intended effect is that this terminology legitimises the coercive actions exercised by agents of government over individuals who place themselves in situations regarded by officialdom as inconvenient.
Flynn adds:
If a comparable instance is needed to justify this viewpoint we would suggest that it comes from the fact that a person driving without insurance is best described as an ‘uninsured driver’, rather than an ’illegal driver’.
Cas Muddle in The Relationship Between Immigration and Nativism in Europe and North America provides five frames used by Western European nativist movements (and often beyond Western Europe) (9-12): security, cultural, religious, economic, and political.
The criminalization of migration, including the use of terms like “illegal immigrant”, is an example of the security frame where immigration and crime, including terrorism, are linked. This is despite evidence that immigrants are no more likely and often less likely to commit crimes than native born members (e.g., for the US, see the Migration Policy Center’s Setting the Record Straight on Immigrants and Crime).
The cultural frame treats immigration as a threat to culture, in which nativists claim that immigrants refuse to assimilate (or are unassimilable because of supposedly fundamental differences between cultures). The religious frameadds a religious dimension to cultural xenophobia. In Europe, this is largely directed at Muslims with the assertion that Islam is incompatible with liberal and democratic institutions.
The economic frame sees immigrants as “stealing” jobs from native workers or coming to the developed world to exploit social benefits. Again, this is presented without evidence or in some cases by presenting selective evidence or by making false claims. (For the economic literature, see Sari Pekkala Kerr and William R. Kerr Economic Impacts of Immigration: A Survey)
Finally, the political frame sees immigrants as political actors in which business and political elites use immigrants to further their own ends against the interests of ordinary citizens. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists have a long history of employing this frame.
A sixth frame I have often encountered is the environmental frame in which immigration is treated as a threat to the environment. Anti-immigration organizations like the Federation for Immigration Reform often treat their opposition to immigration as an environmental issue (the New York Civil Liberties Union has a succinct rebuttal to the environmental frame here).
Examples of all of these frames can be easily found not only among the nativists, but also in the mainstream media and in academic work (usually in milder, but still recognizable forms.) (Christopher Heath Wellman’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on immigrationhas a good overview of the arguments for closed borders. It is remarkable how closely these mirror Muddes’ frames.)
What are the implications of these frames for thinking ethically about immigration?
First, we should ask about the role frames have in distorting our perception about immigration. In particular, we should be wary of allowing nativists to determine what is at stake.
Second, we should consciously try to develop alternative frames. For example, we can think of migrants as enriching our cultures, as creating economic opportunities, and as acting as new members of the political community. Perhaps most importantly, one of the dangers of framing groups of people is that it allows us to dehumanize them and to forget that our policies affect individuals. We need to remember that immigrants are individuals, members of families, and members of our communities.

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