Do Rights Appeals Hurt Immigrant Causes? Legitimacy, Standing, and the Limits of Rights Language

By Irene Bloemraad

Immigrants and those of immigrant-origins have long been targets of nativism and hostility, be it by the leaders and supporters of the 19th century “Know-Nothing” party that denigrated Catholic immigrants to the United States, or by the majority of Swiss voters who decided, in a 2014 referendum vote, to oppose “mass migration” and use quotas to limit new migration.

The vitriol in the United States has reached new heights (or, more precisely, lows) in recent months. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has labeled Mexican migrants drug traffickers and rapists, suggested “thousands” of Arab Americans celebrated the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York and, in a truly appalling move for anyone who has studied the Holocaust or Japanese internment in North America, suggested a national registry for all Muslims in the United States. Populist, far-right political leaders in Europe, from Geert Wilders in the Netherlands to Marianne Le Pen in France, sing the same xenophobic chorus. On either side of the Atlantic, opinion among the public reveals divided views on admitting and integrating immigrants.

How can immigrants and their supports make claims on behalf of the millions of human beings who, for one reason or another, have moved or want to move across an international border? From a moral perspective, it seems fundamentally unjust that some people, due to luck and the happenstance of birthplace, are provided with citizenship and access to safe societies and rich economies. That same arbitrary chance relegates other people to countries where oppression, corruption and poor economic opportunity limit life chances. What gives those who have won the birthplace lottery the right to keep others out? How can advocates advance immigrant rights?

In the United States, claims-making on behalf of immigrants faces particular challenges precisely because of the legacy of “rights” language. What many observers now call the immigrant rights movement uses a key “master” frame of rights in its very name. In doing so, immigrant activists appeal to and extend a rights framing that many U.S. social movements have used to identify problems, make demands, or defend positions. This language is most evident in progressive movements, whether embedded in calls to eliminate “second-class” citizenship for racial minorities and women or the right to marriage equality articulated by LGBT activists. But conservative movements also employ rights language, as when those who defend gun ownership appeal to citizens’ right to bear arms.

This language of rights, however, carries particular dangers for immigrants, especially in the United States. Although rights claims can be couched as universal “human rights,” the long history of past political and legal battles in the country, including those advanced by progressive social movements, has produced a cultural and political logic that often links rights appeals to, as Martin Luther King, Jr, put it, the “promissory note” embedded in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and, I would add, citizenship.

Of course, past social movement leaders did not only appeal to citizenship and the Constitution, but also to a multitude of other frames. Given, however, the deep skepticism of many ordinary Americans toward international institutions and law, and the veneration of certain historical documents, such as the Constitution, rights in this country are inextricably linked to notions of citizenship. Veneration of rights is a cultural and political touchstone, but also strongly reinforced by the practice of judicial review, the power of the Supreme Court, and other institutional mechanisms that enhance the significance of legal avenues for social movement activism in the United States. This is true even if citizenship does not guarantee rights (witness felon disenfranchisement). Yet without citizenship, one’s right to have rights is seriously undermined, not just as a legal matter, but also as a cultural one or as a basis of political legitimacy.

We can see the limits of rights language and the saliency of “Americanness” in activism over immigration in the United States. In 2006, upwards of 5 million people took to the streets to protest a bill passed by the House of Representatives that would have criminalized being undocumented. Those rallying for immigrant rights called on the language of hard work, human rights, civil rights and family unity to advance claims. In reaction, opponents portrayed protestors as unAmerican, criticizing marchers’ display of “foreign” flags—thereby underscoring nationality-based us/them distinctions—and emphasizing the criminality of those who “broke the law” to live in the United States without residence papers. An early reaction of the DREAMer movement (attenuated later) had activists highlighting how “American” and economically valuable undocumented young people are, a discourse evident in President Obama’s speech announcing the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals program.

Many activists worry over the dichotomizing narratives in these claims. Such discourses render some undocumented immigrants innocent (youth brought to the US by their parents through no choice of their own); but, in doing so, they suggest the culpability of others (the parents, who ‘choose’ to break the law). Or, these discourses portray the primary value of immigrants as centered on their labor; but, in doing so, they undermine the standing of those who do not work in the paid economy.

The challenge, when it comes to immigration reform in the United States, is that this is a battle that can never be fully won in the courts. The doctrine of plenary power places much of the ultimate authority over immigration with Congress. As a result, activists must consider public opinion and the challenge of winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of politicians and voters.

Unfortunately, voters are not particularly convinced that immigrants deserve rights. In a 2007 study of American public opinion on human rights done for the Opportunity Agenda, 72% of respondents “strongly” agreed that access to healthcare was a human right. Yet when asked whether “the human rights of illegal immigrants in the U.S. are violated when they are denied access to medical care,” only 24% strongly agreed, suggesting a massive gulf between the abstract idea of human rights and its more concrete application to immigrants.

We also found evidence of Americans’ skepticism over immigrants’ rights in a recent survey experiment I conducted with Fabiana Silva and Kim Voss. Asked whether they supported legalization for undocumented migrants or providing public benefits to immigrants, political moderates in California were less likely to express support when the issue was framed as about human rights pitted against the rights of U.S. citizens. In comparison, when presented as a framing battle over immigrants’ economic contributions, respondents’ views did not vary. Only the language of family unity moved opinion on legalization in a somewhat more supportive direction, and then only among political conservatives, especially women.

This result, combined with the LGBT movement’s recent success using the language of marriage equality, perhaps hints at the resonance of “family” discourses among the American public. It is certainly the case that over the past five years, activists, think tanks and media concerned about high levels of deportation have underscored the cost of deportation on family members. Strikingly, this narrative almost always centers on the American citizen children who suffer, as if non-citizen children do not have the same standing to make claims for family unity.

The implications of these data suggest a correction to, or at least caution about, existing theorizing on rights frames and social movements in the United States. The rights “master” frame, articulated powerfully in the civil rights movement and later borrowed by almost every American social movement, may be inaccessible to noncitizens, at least in the minds of many in the public. This makes the situation of immigrants more precarious – not only do they lack citizenship and access to rights, but they also might lack the legitimacy in the public’s mind to even make claims for them.


1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Immigrants and Refugees

One response to “Do Rights Appeals Hurt Immigrant Causes? Legitimacy, Standing, and the Limits of Rights Language

  1. This is such an important issues to raise for both scholars and activists. I think it came out in Obama’s recent address, in which he repeatedly brought up the concept of “dignity,” not political rights. I think many activists are hesitant to use morality as a frame because it is, simply, more labor-intensive to garner support with it. Using political touchstones carries an automatic legitimacy, whereas seeking an emotional and moral resonance takes more creativity and persistence. I can’t help but think of the Humans of New York (@humansofny); an Instagram account profiling the daily minutiae that became so popular the author published a book and international series. Recently he is profiling Syrian refugees and their stories, using narrative to both humanize and show the resistance against ISIS that exists in that region. The images and stories illustrate how closed borders and hateful rhetoric rob people of their dignity, and the process through which exclusionary immigration laws could create enemies of allies.


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