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The VICE Guide to the 2016 Election

How Clinton Can Win the Immigration Debate

Donald Trump is no doubt going to continue his angry anti-immigrant rhetoric during Monday's debate, so we asked a political scientist what Hillary Clinton's most effective counterargument would be.

A rally outside of Hillary Clinton's New York Senate office in 2007 calling for immigration reform. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet for their first debate on Monday, immigration will be taking center stage. Trump has based his entire campaign from the beginning on opposition to illegal immigration—his signature policy is building a big wall, he's spoken darkly of immigrants in speeches and commercials, and after a bombing attack hit Manhattan this week, he took the opportunity to say that Syrian refugees were out to "destroy our country," even though Syrian refugees had nothing to do with the incident.


Clinton has consistently denounced Trump's immigration rhetoric and supports a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants. But the issue doesn't have the same prominence in her campaign as it does in Trump's—among her other proposals, she also wants to raise the minimum wage and make college much more affordable.

How can Clinton counter Trump's passion on immigration? What could she do to own the issue of immigration onstage Monday night? To help figure that out, VICE called Jennifer Merolla, a political scientist at UC Riverside and the co-author of the forthcoming book Framing Immigrants, which tracks how public opinion around immigration is affected by the mass media and politicians.

VICE: Hillary says that she's for comprehensive immigration reform? What does that mean? That's as vague as saying you're for gun control.
Jennifer Merolla: I think some of the details are still a little bit vague. At least in some of her public statements on her website, they say, as you indicated, that she supports comprehensive immigration reform, but the key point is the pathway to citizenship. So we don't know all the details of what that would entail, but other aspects that she does highlight suggest many ways of making a pathway to citizenship a little easier than it's been in the past. So, for example, she does kind of talk about promoting naturalization, waiving fees in some cases, recognizing that some of the costs of becoming naturalized can be prohibitive for immigrants. But it's still vague right now.


Still, it's a very different vision than what we're seeing from Donald Trump. And that could be why she's being vague on the details. Strategically speaking, she can say she's for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship without specifying all the details since he has a very different position on the issue.

How is Clinton's platform––however vague––different from what Barack Obama was pushing in 2008 or 2012?
I think there are some new elements that I don't remember seeing when Obama was running for office, but I would have to look back more carefully. DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allows people who came to the US illegally as children to remain in the country] wasn't around yet. Obama supported comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act, which Hillary Clinton was one of the early sponsors of the bill, and she supports DACA and DAPA [Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, a proposed program that would let undocumented immigrants who were parents of American citizens stay in the country], but those didn't exist before he was in office. He created them while he was in office. But then there are things we didn't hear as much about. Her website has a bit about creating an Office of Immigration Affairs and talks a bit more about ending family detention and private immigration detention centers. But those have only been more prominent in the news over the past several years. They weren't as prominent when Obama was running for office.


Do you even see her bothering to work with Congress at all, given the way that all efforts at immigration reform have failed in the past?
She is known for once she's in office for trying to work across the aisle and trying to compromise on certain issues. There would likely be things she wouldn't compromise on, and that's a little hard to tell at this stage. But she said it's a priority to pass immigration reform early on, within the first 100 days I think. But I can't imagine that the Republicans are gonna lose the House, so if you do want to pass immigration reform, it will require making some concessions to get anything passed. There are have been so many failed attempts over the years that without at least some bipartisan support, I don't think it's going to go very far.

I think a lot of it will depend on how wide of a margin the Republicans maintain in the House in terms of their positions of power and whether there's some contingent among them that thinks it behooves them to come to some compromise on immigration reform. They might think, if they lose the presidency again, that the strategy they're using isn't getting them anywhere and they need to try to make more inroads with communities and Latinos might be a community that it makes sense to build inroads with.

How has the way that we talk about immigration shifted since the past two elections? Just on a semantic level, most media outlets use the phrase "undocumented immigrant" rather than "illegal immigrant."
There are a few things that have shifted. On the one hand, there have been changes to style guidelines at news organizations. You're right that "illegal immigrant" was once the standard term used and now more and more outlets are saying "undocumented." We've found that it really doesn't make any difference in public opinion if you say "undocumented" versus "illegal." But it may have long-term affects on the way people view undocumented immigrants in general.


At the same time, I think the rhetoric that we see today is much harsher than what we saw when there have been other attempts at immigration reform. The criminal element [the idea that immigrants bring crime with them] has been highlighted so much more by the Trump campaign. That's always been a frame that's always been around immigration reform, but it's not usually the dominant frame. Trump's highlighting of several instances of someone who's undocumented murdering someone else––we haven't seen that before. How did building the wall become Trump's signature policy?
The idea of building a wall has been around a long time. It was being talked about certainly during the 2012 Republican primaries. Many of the candidates were talking about building walls, about building double walls, about electric fences. So the whole idea of building a wall has been around for a while with immigration reform. And it was thought to be one of the ways to get more people onboard with the idea of comprehensive immigration reform. That was one of the strategies that was used––the idea that if we can at least take care of our borders, then we can start with comprehensive immigration reform. And in a sense, that's what Marco Rubio was talking about a bit during the primary. But Trump made immigration his signature issue in many respects, and he just took arguments that have been around for a while and made them his focal issue.


From a political perspective, what's more effective, Trump calling Mexican immigrants murderers, or Clinton's portrayal of migrants as hardworking people who don't deserve to be punished?
We do find in a lot of negative frames on the Republican side can be very effective. When you focus on people breaking the law, it reduces support for immigration reform and increases support for deportation. Other researchers have found that if people are worried about crime, it reduces support for immigration reform. If you mention "amnesty" in regards to any reform, it reduces support. A lot of those frames that we're seeing on the right we have found are very effective—and a lot more effective than what we're hearing from the Hillary campaign.

Because a lot of the focus on the frames has been about not wanting to tear apart families, and we don't find too much traction on that message in some of our research. We find much more traction if she focuses on innocent children. That does lead to more support for immigration reform, as well as focusing on economic issues around immigration. She hasn't really played that up much. For example, she could talk about the actual costs of a massive deportation force. That's another policy Donald Trump promotes—she could talk about how much that would cost, not only to actually do that but then the cost to the economy of not having those immigrants around. When people are told those economic costs, their support for deportation diminishes greatly.


She could also focus on the fact that many of the undocumented immigrants who are here have been here for long periods of time. And if more people know that these are people who have lived in our society for a long time, they're much more supportive of immigration reform. There is one benefit that Hillary gets from Trump's rhetoric, which is it further mobilizes Latinos against him. So there's a backlash effect that people who feel targeted become more engaged in the political process.

I would take a more cynical view and assume fear always beats out empathy.
It usually does. But the empathy angle works better when focusing on children. And economics. She doesn't do that much. But then again she just hasn't been as vocal about immigration as Donald Trump. She hasn't had really any signature speeches about the issue. She'll talk about it on the stump, but she doesn't highlight it.

Should Hillary be pushing back on Trump's claim that she's going to grant 11 million people amnesty?
She has to change the narrative and counter the claim that she's going to give people amnesty. It's not amnesty; it's a path to citizenship that requires people to do X, Y, Z, and not have a criminal record, yadda, yadda, yadda. She should try not to say the word "amnesty," but present her plan for the people who are already here and emphasize that they've been here a long time and pay taxes.

What's Clinton's best bet for arguing with Trump about Syrian refugees, who Trump seems to want to keep out altogether?
That one is tricky, because there was so much opposition across the country to letting in Syrian refugees. But I think certain types of frames [could work], like saying that we shouldn't have religious litmus tests for people who are coming into this country because it goes against our founding principles. Or trying to tie it back to what our nation is about, those positive values. I don't know if she wants to bring it up, but she might not be able to avoid it. She may be directly asked a question about it, and I think that the way she's handled it in the past is probably the best way she can in terms of messaging. You can try to say that the vast majority of these refugees are innocent people trying to escape harm and violence, and that's what she's said, but it's hard to get around the perception that attacks that have happened throughout the year aren't somehow linked to refugees—even though they haven't. It's hard to dislodge some of those public fears and perceptions.

Once people believe something that's not true, it becomes very hard to dislodge those misperceptions. There's a lot of interesting research on that. Especially if that misinformation reinforces their opinions, it just becomes really hard to dislodge it.

How do you reassure people who are afraid of refugees if you're a presidential candidate like Clinton?
I don't know if you give a speech about it. I think if it comes up during a debate, then yes, it's certainly worth trying to reassure people. There may be some people who don't have a lot of information, and don't have very strong beliefs, so for those people reassurances could work. But for those who are opposed to immigrants coming from Middle Eastern countries where there's been terrorist activity––you're not gonna reassure them.

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