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The Unintended Effects of Framing U.S. Immigration as a Security Issue

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susanna Southworth
December 9, 2016

border-62866_640Donald J. Trump’s election as America’s next president on Nov. 8, 2016 fanned the flames of an already divisive political climate on immigration with his promise to build a wall along the United States’ border with Mexico and deport criminal aliens. Trump revealed his ten-point plan during his address on immigration on August 31, 2016. The first three aims are:

1) Build a wall along the Southern Border

2) End Catch-and-Release (detain and remove individuals who illegally cross the border)

3) Zero tolerance for criminal aliens (remove criminal aliens).

Security concerns underlie his plan: “Right now…we are in the middle of a jobs crisis, a border crisis and a terrorism crisis. All energies of the federal government and the legislative process must now be focused on immigration security.” On Dec. 1, 2016, in remarks to the workers at the Carrier air conditioning company in Indianapolis, Trump confirmed his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Public administration theory helps to explain the inevitable and unintended spillover effects into policy outcomes of Trump’s framing of U.S. immigration as a security issue.

Symbolism and the politics of framing

Charles J. Fox, in his book Reinventing Government as Postmodern Symbolic Politics, warns that symbols often trump sound, consistent, reality-based theory in our post-modern age. The attacks of 9/11 brought the war on terrorism to the forefront of the U.S. foreign policy agenda and elevated terrorism as a symbol to guide immigration law, despite its disconnect to the day-to-day life of U.S. immigrants. There is logic to the ascension of symbols like terrorism in light of the horror of 9/11; however, Fox notes that there is no consistent logic to unpack for analysis and correction. In other words, symbols in politics replace deliberation over policy just as the Real ID Act and its singular focus on security concerns have replaced deliberation over whether there should be a direct pathway to citizenship in U.S. immigration law.

In addition to symbolism, framing drives policy design through the work of category making. According to Amy Cabrera Rasmussen in Contraception as Health? The Framing of Issue Categories in Contemporary Policymaking, frames have the capacity to both operate within issue categories and construct issue categories themselves. Trump engages in framing by using the concept of security to construct all immigration problems in his Address on Immigration. Frames are powerful in that they influence the shaping of laws, regulations, allocation decisions and institutional mechanisms. For example, the 2005 Real ID mandate for the security of drivers’ licenses reframed the focus from state motor vehicle departments and driver safety to homeland security. Trump’s frame of immigration policy as a security issue will affect its implementation.

The construction of a target population

Policy design influences the social behavior and well-being of target groups, no matter the level of generality or abstractness of the frame used to describe the substance of the policy. Moving forward, security as the overriding concern and frame for immigration policy will have residual effects on the behavior and self-identification of immigrants. Anne Schneider and Helen Ingram, in Social Constructions of Target Populations: Implications for Politics and Policy, introduce social construction theory, in which policy design affects the cultural characterizations or popular images of the persons or groups that it targets. These characterizations stem from values or symbols, and they are normative, evaluative, and either positive or negative in nature. They influence the behavior of legislators, administrators and the target population, including their conception of citizenship and style of participation. For example, public officials feel pressure to provide benefits with few limitations to target populations that policy language constructs as powerful and positive, and the target population, in turn, will have more confidence to engage in the political system.

By contrast, negatively constructed groups face more punitive implementation measures and consequently, distance themselves from the public sphere. Trump’s ultimatum that security concerns will drive the enforcement and design of immigration law moving forward embeds security as an additional material aim, generating hypersensitivity to terrorism and xenophobia. A negative construction of all types of immigrants is an unintended byproduct no matter whether they are illegal aliens, refugees, migrant workers, asylum seekers, or highly skilled workers with waivers. The negative construction of immigrants leads to unintended behavioral effects including immigration reform singularly focused on enforcement and removal to the detriment of devising a desperately needed direct pathway to citizenship; the preoccupation of public administrators with removal procedures over humanitarian concerns; and segregationist behavior by immigrants.

The president-elect may still pursue his objectives of securing U.S. borders and enforcing immigration law while maintaining humanitarian policies, such as asylum provisions and facilitating immigrant integration into society via a direct pathway to citizenship. In addition, immigration policy should educate and empower documented and undocumented immigrants alike with positive social constructions. The first step toward a more positive design construction would be to soften the singular focus on immigration security with other objectives, such as “assimilation, integration and upward mobility,” consistent with Trump’s goal to “reform immigration to serve the best interests of America and its workers” in his ten-point plan.


Author: Susanna Southworth is a licensed attorney in Washington State and a doctoral student in political science at the University of Utah. She is a 2016 ASPA Founders’ Fellow and former FLAS Fellow. She earned her J.D. from the University of Texas Law School and her B.A. magna cum laude in International Affairs from the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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One Response to The Unintended Effects of Framing U.S. Immigration as a Security Issue

  1. John Pearson Reply

    December 11, 2016 at 10:17 pm

    I would suggest that a better way to look at the immigration debate is through the lens of the fact/value dichotomy. When we do that, we usually find that the public interest is indeterminate. There is no clear-cut correct policy. See my column on this topic: https://patimes.org/gun-control-fact-dichotomy-public-interest/

    Trump has been stressing the risk that immigrants may pose to security. We know there is no upper limit to what terrorists might do. They might blow up entire cities if they could. So far, their attacks have been limited and sporadic in the U.S. In this case, the level of risk is unknown. The facts are largely unknown. Many citizens may wish the government to err on the side of safety. That’s a value preference. It’s not a right or wrong viewpoint.

    Others have suggested that illegal immigrants be deported because they are competing with American workers and driving wages down or because they have violated immigration laws. It’s a pretty safe bet that the increased supply of low-wage workers is driving wages down and there is no doubt that illegal immigrants have violated immigration laws. But the view that immigrants should be deported for these reasons is based on a personal value preference. I happen to have the opposite preference, taking into account humanitarian concerns and the value that illegal immigrants bring to the economy. Our personal preferences cannot be right or wrong. I would take issue with the claim that there is a “desperately needed pathway to citizenship.” Some people have a preference for that policy. Some prefer the opposite.

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