'Amnesty' and 'illegal': When words have policy consequences

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As they grapple with ways to explain their new positions, these officials are also finding a new vocabulary on how they describe and frame the immigration debate. In line with a memo from the Republican-leaning Hispanic Leadership Institute earlier this year, many officials are now avoiding mentions of “amnesty” and “anchor babies.” Even Sean Hannity, a conservative radio and television host famous for his prior opposition to “amnesty,” now uses phrases such as “pathway to citizenship.” Some legislators, such as Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) are also referring more frequently to people as “undocumented immigrants” rather than “illegal immigrants.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), however, is not one of them. At a recent town hall meeting in Phoenix, a constituent asked McCain to stop using the term “illegal immigrant,” and the senator declined. He said he would continue using the term because it is an accurate description of those without legal authority to reside in the country.

While some pro-immigration advocates may worry that Sen. McCain’s rhetorical stance will hurt public support for immigration reform, we have evidence from survey experiments (published in a forthcoming journal article) that it might not make much of a difference.

More generally, advocates on both sides of the immigration debate believe that the terms used to describe immigrants and immigration policies makes a difference in the realm of public opinion. However, these beliefs are largely based on speculation (and perhaps the occasional focus group), rather than on rigorous testing. We conducted such a test by randomly exposing voters to different ways of describing immigrants — as “illegal,” “undocumented,” or “unauthorized,” — as well as different ways of framing policies, including whether the mention of “amnesty” is used. We then looked at whether these alternate frames resulted in shifts in opinion on immigration policy.

We found that using the term “illegal immigrant” did not reduce voter support for policies such as immigrant legalization, the DREAM Act, or birthright citizenship. Indeed, among those who were first- or second-generation immigrants, the use of the term “illegal immigrant” actually led to a slight increase in voter support for the DREAM Act and broader legalization. Those with recent immigration histories thus seem to react against the use of the term, which in turn leads to greater support for immigration rights.

However, far more significant than the terms used to describe immigrants is whether or not policy-relevant terms such as “amnesty” are used, or whether beneficiaries of the DREAM Act are described in slightly greater detail. Using the word “amnesty,” for example, moved voters from being neutral on the question of immigrant legalization to being moderately opposed.  Similarly, pointing out to voters that beneficiaries of the DREAM Act are those who came to the United States as “young children” moved them towards greater support for the policy.

Why might policy frames be more consequential than decisions to label immigrants as “illegal” or “unauthorized”?  We believe that a critical difference centers around the fact that voters have relatively low levels of information about immigration policies, and so policy frames can have a significant effect on opinion. By contrast, most individuals already have a concrete image of an illegal or undocumented immigrant (given not only national news coverage of policy, but also local news coverage and everyday social interactions), and invoking different terms might make little difference in terms of their opinions on policies.

Of course, there are other likely wide-ranging effects of using certain phrases rather than others that need further testing, including immigrants’ own sense of empowerment. The use of different terms by elected officials may also signal to Latinos and Asian Americans whether their parties are welcoming or unfriendly towards their interests.  Even on the more narrow question of opinion on immigration policy, we find that words such as “illegal” or “undocumented” matter for immigrant voters.

Overall, however, policy frames on immigration are far more consequential, and recent attempts by Republicans to reduce their use of the term “amnesty” when talking to their constituents will mean that immigration reform has a greater chance of winning approval today than in 2006 and 2007.

Ramakrishnan is associate professor of Political Science at University of California-Riverside and Merolla is associate professor of Political Science at Claremont Graduate University.