Our man Lakoff, in the language trenches:
May 22, 2006
A BUZZFLASH GUEST CONTRIBUTION
by George Lakoff and Sam Ferguson
Framing is at the center of the recent immigration debate. Simply framing it as about “immigration” has shaped its politics, defining what count as “problems” and constraining the debate to a narrow set of issues. The language is telling. The linguistic framing is remarkable: frames for illegal immigrant, illegal alien, illegals, undocumented workers, undocumented immigrants, guest workers, temporary workers, amnesty, and border security. These linguistic expressions are anything but neutral. Each framing defines the problem in its own way, and the hence constrains the solutions needed to address that problem.
The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, we will analyze the framing used in the public debate. Second, we suggest some alternative framing to highlight important concerns left out of the current debate. Our point is to show that the relevant issues go far beyond what is being discussed, and that acceptance of the current framing impoverishes the discussion.
* * *
On May 15th, in an address from the Oval Office, President Bush presented his proposal for “comprehensive immigration reform.” The term “immigration reform” evokes an issue-defining conceptual frame — The Immigration Problem Frame — a frame that imposes a structure on the current situation, defines a set of “problems” with that situation, and circumscribes the possibility for “solutions.”
“Reform,” when used in politics, indicates there is a pressing issue that needs to be addressed — take “medicare reform,” “lobbying reform,” “social security reform.” The noun that’s attached to reform — “immigration” — points to where the problem lies. Whatever noun is attached to “reform” becomes the locus of the problem and constrains what counts as a solution.
Bush’s “comprehensive solution” entirely concerns the immigrants, citizenship laws, and the border patrol. And, from the narrow problem identified by framing it as an “immigration problem,” Bush’s solution is comprehensive. He has at least addressed everything that counts as a problem in the immigration frame. But the real problem with the current situation runs broader and deeper. Consider the issue of Foreign Policy Reform, which focuses on two sub-issues:
* How has US foreign policy placed, or kept, in power oppressive governments which people are forced to flee?
* What role have international trade agreements had in creating or exacerbating people’s urge to flee their homelands? If capital is going to freely cross borders, should people and labor be able to do so as well, going where globalization takes the jobs?
Such a framing of the problem would lead to a solution involving the Secretary of State, conversations with Mexico and other Central American countries, and a close examination of the promises of NAFTA, CAFTA, the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank to raise standards of living around the globe. It would inject into the globalization debate a concern for the migration and displacement of people, not simply globalization’s promise for profits. This is not addressed when the issue is defined as the “immigration problem.” Bush’s “comprehensive solution” does not address any of these concerns. The immigration problem, in this light, is actually a globalization problem.
Perhaps the problem might be better understood as a humanitarian crisis. Can the mass migration and displacement of people from their homelands at a rate of 800,000 people a year be understood as anything else? Unknown numbers of people have died trekking through the extreme conditions of the Arizona and New Mexico desert. Towns are being depopulated and ways of life lost in rural Mexico. Fathers feel forced to leave their families in their best attempt to provide for their kids. Everyday, boatloads of people arrive on our shores after miserable journeys at sea in deplorable conditions.
Why It’s Not a Single Issue
The wealth of frames in this debate has made it confusing. The frames within the debate have been divisive. But the absence of frames to counter the idea of the “immigration problem” has also been divisive. Since each frame presents a different component of the problem, it’s worth noting who stresses which frames, and which problems that frame define.
The conservative views:
* Law and Order: The “illegal immigrants” are criminals, felons, and must be punished – rounded up and sent home. There should be no amnesty. Otherwise all law will break down.
* The Nativists: The immigrants are diluting our culture, our language, and our values.
* The Profiteers: We need cheap labor to keep our profits up and our cheap lifestyle in place.
* The Bean Counters: We can’t afford to have illegal immigrants using our tax dollars on health, education, and other services.
* The Security Hounds: We need more border guards and a hi-tech wall to guarantee our security.
The progressive views:
* Progressivism Begins at Home: The immigrants are taking the jobs of American works and we have to protect our workers.
* African-American Protectionists: Hispanic immigrants are threatening African-American jobs.
* Provide a path to citizenship: The immigrants have earned citizenship with their hard work, their devotion to American values, and their contribution to our society.
* Foreign Policy Reformers: We need to pay attention to the causes that drive others from their homelands.
* Wage supports: Institute a serious earned income tax credit for Americans doing otherwise low-paying jobs, so that more Americans will want to do them and fewer immigrants will be drawn here.
* Illegal Employers: The way to protect American workers and slow immigration of unskilled workers is to prosecute employers of unskilled workers.
We can see why this is such a complex problem and why there are so splits within both the conservative and progressive ranks.