‘It’s evil and needs to be exposed’

Image courtesy of Migration Policy Institute

Over the last few months, we have worked with the Migration Policy Institute, Metropolitan Group, and Rand Corporation to better understand how migration narratives take hold, shape policy, and, in more and more instances, are politically weaponized.

In the project’s phase one report, funded by Humanity United, the team completed case studies of Colombia, Lebanon, Morocco, Sweden, and the U.S. in order to establish a foundation of information that will inform future research. Across the countries studied, dominant narratives were categorized as either positive/neutral or threats.

Messages that reinforce the positive/neutral narratives fell across solidarity and compassion, national pride, and pragmatism. Meanwhile, those that reinforce threat narratives included economic and resource insecurity, threats to physical security, threats to national identity, the loss of control, and existential threats.

Across the countries studied, top-down positive narratives, the authors found, “may conflict with public sentiment if those messages clash with people’s beliefs, assumptions, and experiences, and fail to address underlying anxieties regarding migration.”

The authors saw a tension between bottom-up and top-down narratives, “where the latter (promoted by government and senior leaders) are sometimes seen as papering over people’s real concerns or stifling legitimate debate.” When this disconnect is significant, “this dissonance can spill over into political conflict.”

In the end, “the most dominant threat narratives are driven by insecurity — whether related to economics, culture, or safety.” And, “negative narratives are particularly sticky, even when they are not firmly rooted in evidence.”

Fabulous.

Last week, for Only in America, I talked with Bri Stensrud, Director of Women of Welcome, about the way her community was welcoming Afghan evacuees across the U.S. Our conversation then turned to how the situation faced by Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas, was understood.

In the case of Afghans, Stensrud told me, “the narrative was framed that these were allies and these were friends of the U.S.”

It was a bottom-up narrative initially driven by military veterans. So, for many conservatives, “their husbands, their spouses, their wives were saved by a lot of these Afghan allies that worked with our military. And, so, there was just a lot of personal connection.”

On the other hand, when it came to Haitian migration, for conservatives and moderates, “There isn’t a whole lot of context to really grapple with and relate with,” Stensrud said. Given the lack of information from trusted messengers, top-down “invasion narratives” from the likes of Tucker Carlson defined the issue.

Which underscored the importance of “context and education” in order for the Welcome “community to feel confident entering into spaces.” Stensrud told me, “It’s not that they don’t have empathy or that they don’t have compassion. But there was just a really easy connection to the people of Afghanistan.”

Without these connections — or trusted messengers to illustrate such connections — misinformation and extremism shape the immigration narrative.

In a panel for the National Immigration Forum’s Leading the Way convening, Pete Wehner moderated a discussion with Elizabeth Neumann and David French focused on combating extremism and nativism.

Acknowledging that there are “prudential concerns” that we need to grapple with, French made the case that “the basic emphasis” of the U.S. “still must be on, when people are fleeing oppression, when people are fleeing privation and seeking opportunity, the basic posture is one of welcome.”

As we know, achieving, much less maintaining, this national posture has become increasingly difficult.

Because, “There have been people planning for 10 or 20 years,” Neumann said, “building these false arguments to eventually get to this space where they have basically co-opted a major political party and turned them into populist nativists” who are trying to “establish the whiteness of America.

“It’s very disgusting,” Neumann said. “It’s evil, and it needs to be exposed in order for us to get back to having rational policy debates, which are legitimate and deserve to be held.”

Before 2016, one was hard-pressed to see a discussion about race or extremism in conservative or moderate circles. Now, thankfully, there is an active debate in these spaces. But it can’t be top-down only.

Success depends on our collective ability to advance a positive narrative about race, culture and immigration from living rooms and social media feeds, as well as from panels and books.

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.