Individuals conducting messaging research Photo by Sabrina Wong

Breaking Through the Noise

Research Effort Aims to Uncover How to Build More Support for Immigrants

Immigrant rights organizations, grassroots groups, and funders are combining in-depth conversations with quantitative research to find out what truly drives immigration opinions—and how to shift them.

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Anti-immigrant rhetoric, fear-mongering, and violence have reached epidemic levels. Many people are understandably concerned that our nation has become hopelessly divided on the issue of immigration. The perception is that each side in the debate is entrenched and immovable, with just a small group of people who haven’t made up their minds.

This view is based on the fact that most research into the public’s attitudes on immigration is based on opinion polls, which are flawed in many ways. For example, polls are incapable of assessing what is going on inside people’s heads when they are asked to answer basic questions. In addition, most polling focuses on specific issues such as citizenship for Dreamers and whether we should have a wall on the Southern border. But people’s thinking about immigration is not driven by opinions on specific policies; it comes from a much deeper place.

Without new research, it is going to be hard to break through the noise and build more support for the pro-immigrant cause.

Finding the Right Frame

Over the last 18 months, the Haas, Jr. Fund and nine philanthropic partners* have been working on an ambitious project to find an overarching frame for advancing and defending immigrant rights.

The project is being led by the California Immigrant Policy Center in partnership with grassroots groups in Fresno and Orange Counties in California and Nashville, Tennessee. These three communities were selected because of their growing immigrant populations, and also because their rural, suburban, and Southern locales offer broader lessons for similar, demographically changing regions.

The results to date—based on both quantitative research and in-depth conversations with more than 2,000 voters in California and Tennessee—are extremely promising and debunk many assumptions. These results also are lifting up solutions that can be exported beyond these three communities to other places around the country.

We’ve found, for example, that asking voters to talk about their feelings about immigration and immigrants without pushing an agenda has an exceptionally calming effect. Most people feel “talked at” and not “listened to” on immigration issues. Giving them the opportunity to talk and reflect on their beliefs is a chance for people to think more deeply, weigh all sides, and articulate their deepest hopes and fears.

“A Game Changer”

We have learned that these conversations have had a remarkable impact in three key ways:

  • Building support for pro-immigrant solutions. For every 100 conversations, we have generated eight new supporters for pro-immigrant policies. To put this in context, it took eight years (2004–2012) of message testing and research for the LGBT movement to have a similar effect on people’s views of gay rights and marriage equality. Needless to say, shifting attitudes on immigration policy by eight points among the broader public would be a game changer for the immigrant rights movement in critical places across the nation.
  • Generating sustainable shifts in opinion. Equally important, the positive impact of these conversations on people’s opinions was extraordinarily “sticky”; remarkably, six of the eight people who became supportive of pro-immigrant policies remained supportive after three and six months. To put this in context, the impact of the most effective political TV ads persists for less than five days.
  • Changing attitudes among diverse voters. Finally, the conversations changed attitudes across many types of voters, with similar effects regardless of ideology, race, gender, and age. In other words, our research suggests there is a very large pool of potentially persuadable voters on immigration issues, as opposed to the common belief that the “movables” are in a relatively narrow band in the ideological center.

Going to Scale

We are now working to determine if and how these results can be replicated at the scale necessary to blunt the impact of ugly anti-immigrant attacks that will surely be deployed with increasing velocity during the 2020 election cycle. We also are exploring how to use the frames we are developing to catalyze near-term wins on pro-immigrant issues and to support long-term changes in attitudes and opinions. We’re testing videos with promising messaging approaches, using new technologies to target specific groups of voters, and experimenting with various ways to measure impact so we can conclusively and convincingly make the case for new kinds of conversations and appeals.

The Haas, Jr. Fund and our partners continue to test and refine messages and research approaches, with the goal of holding more conversations among different audiences in different locations. Funders and others who are interested in supporting this work, please contact Kimberly Serrano, the project’s manager, or John Govea at the Haas, Jr. Fund.

By shifting public opinion on immigration issues in a durable way, we can limit the impact of anti-immigrant rhetoric and unlock the path to a new federal immigration system that our country so desperately needs.

*The California Wellness Foundation, The Beacon Fund, Four Freedoms Fund, Luminate Group, James Irvine Foundation, The Dan and Margaret Maddox Charitable Fund, The Frist Foundation, The Healing Trust, Nissan Foundation