Facts, Frames, and the Fight Over Immigration

A recent article in the Washington Post details results from a Gallup poll which found a statistically distinguishable seven percent drop in Americans’ support for increasing immigration. Crucially, the article shows that this drop is not attributable to changes in the number of immigrants in the United States or the U.S. unemployment rate.[i] So what does explain this change in public support?

Looking at FrameWorks’ investigations into the way Americans think about immigration provides a potential explanation for the gap between opinion and reality.

The key to understanding this gap is the fact that public opinion is not governed exclusively or even directly by the facts present in the public discourse, like the rate of immigration or unemployment, but rather by the way they are framed. Put simply, opinion comes from our experiences of the world around us filtered through a set of cultural perceptions. It is this mediating function of culture that explains the paradox in the Washington Post’s analysis.

When it comes to immigration, FrameWorks’ research has found that Americans’ opinions and perceptions are heavily influenced by whether they see immigrants as similar to or as different from themselves—whether immigrants are understood as “us” or “them.”[ii] In fact, our research shows that when people see themselves in immigrants or see immigration as a potential part of the “American” community, their support for a whole host of progressive immigration policies increases.

Thus, while actual immigration or employment numbers don’t seem to influence public support for immigration, the us/them dichotomy does play a key role in shaping this support.

So what influences where the line between “us” and “them” is drawn? Our research suggests that the cultural models of immigrants (whether we perceive them as us or them) that emerge when respondents answer a pollster’s question plays the central role in shaping their answers. In other words, the frames present in the media and public discourse at the time of the survey determines which of these models has the greatest likelihood of activation when people think about immigration.

In this sense, the dynamics of our political/media system exert more influence over opinions than one might expect; and understanding these dynamics, which have worked against immigration of late, are a key to understanding public opinion in general and, more specifically, of explaining the drop in support revealed in the Gallup poll.

The important takeaway for immigration advocates is that effectively framing public discussions can exert more influence on peoples’ attitudes than unframed, actual facts about the world.[iii] Put simply, frames matter.




[i] Bump, Philip (2014) Americans turn against immigration — but, as always, it’s complicated, The Washington Post, 6/27; retrieved 6/28/2014

[ii] Baran,M., Kendall-Taylor, N., Lindland, E., O’Neil, M.,& Haydon, A. (2014). Getting toWe: Mapping the gaps between expert and public understandings of immigration and immigration reform. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.

[iii]Simon, A. & Gilliam, Frank, Jr. (2013).  Don’t Stay on Message: What 8,000 respondents say about using strategic framing to move the public discourse on immigration. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.



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