He (or she) who frames the issue tends to determine the outcome of the election. That’s an old political consultant’s rule, and its application has never been more apt than in the Senate Democrats’ failed government shutdown over immigration policy.
Issue-framing is especially important on immigration. It’s an issue on which small percentages of voters on different sides have very strong views, and on which the large majority with less interest has conflicting views.
Euphemism has been the weapon of the liberals on this. You can’t say illegal immigrants, you have to say undocumented aliens. (By the way, have you ever heard those two words spoken together in ordinary conversation?) You can’t say amnesty, you have to say legalization. You can’t say illegal immigrants brought in illegally as children, you have to say "Dreamers" (a phrase irresistibly appealing to journalists, like me, trying to keep their word count down).
You have to say that any immigration legislation providing a path to citizenship for the bulk of the estimated (by the widely respected Pew Research Center) 11 million illegal immigrants is "comprehensive." You have to say that more restrictive plans are "hardline" and therefore presumably undesirable.
In previous debates over immigration legislation, in 2006, 2007, and 2013, euphemisms held sway. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama both sought “comprehensive” legislation, including mass amnesty. That was the policy of every president since mass immigration picked up in the early 1980s.
President Trump, notoriously, campaigned for something different, starting just moments after he stepped off that escalator in Trump Tower in June 2015. His use of confrontation and sometimes vile language strikes many Americans, including me, as distasteful. But it has also helped him frame issues, including immigration, his way.
He was attacked as racist for saying that Mexico “does not send its best.” But Pew Research Center data confirms that immigrants from Mexico have on average the lowest education and skill levels as those from any country. His use of the term “chain migration” was attacked by Dreamer advocate Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., as offensive because slaves arrived in North America in chains. This effort at euphemism enforcement was a stretch: People of varying views have been using the term “chain migration” for two decades.
Trump’s positions on immigration did evolve during the campaign. He joined the large majority of Americans who favor legislation granting clear legal status to the 700,000 or so Dreamers who registered under Obama’s legally dubious Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order. That was a bow to the classic Judeo-Christian notion that sins of the fathers should not be visited on the sons.
The president’s September announcement that he would allow the order to lapse in March, but would sign legislation including a permanent arrangement for Dreamers, set a schedule for negotiation. But he insisted that the bill include other provisions, many unfamiliar to the public.
One would abolish the visa lottery, which has few defenders given the number of terrorists and parents of terrorists it has admitted. Another would require use of the E-Verify system to validate the status of job applicants.
A third would move legal immigration slots from extended-family-reunification, which accounts for the lion’s share today, to a skills-based system like Canada’s and Australia’s.
This was an unfamiliar term during previous immigration bill debates, largely unmentioned by comprehensive legislation advocates, and their opponents’ arguments got little airing in the press. But it’s become more familiar during the Trump presidency, and a recent Harvard-Harris poll showed 79 percent of voters in favor of using “education and skills” to determine immigration rather than merely bringing in extended family.
Then there is the border wall, a staple of Trump campaign rhetoric. Many polls show voters opposed or skeptical that it would work. But when you frame it to include, as Trump did even during his campaign, both “physical and electronic barriers across the U.S.-Mexico border,” it’s favored by 54 percent according to Harvard- Harris.
Trump won the 69-hour shutdown fight with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., because he was willing to frame the issue as a choice between funding the government, including the military, and helping illegal immigrants. Democratic senators might wince at the noneuphemism, but they didn’t want to defend their party’s position.
Trump continues to have leverage on immigration so long as he keeps emphasizing the specific provisions he is demanding, in noneuphemistic language if necessary. Of course this could still explode in his face. But for now, the only way to get DACA legalization is, if he insists on it, Trump’s way.