Expert Commentary

“Illegal,” “undocumented,” “unauthorized”: Issue frames and perceptions of immigrants

2013 study by Claremont Graduate University and University of California-Riverside on the role of language in framing immigration policy.

“Illegal” — the label used by many to describe immigrants who lack official documents — is more and more frequently being swapped out for terms like “undocumented” or “unauthorized.” In April 2013, the Associated Press pledged to purge “illegal” in its style book, reserving the term only as a descriptor for actions, not people. Of course, that is not the only controversial term in this debate over language and immigration. There are battles over the use of “amnesty” versus “a path to citizenship,” as well as over “anchor babies” versus “birthright.” (According to the 14th Amendment, “all persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States.”)

These linguistic and framing fights continue as Congress prepares for another potential push on immigration reform, and as patterns of opinion continue to fluctuate. The Pew Research Center provides perspective on certain patterns in press coverage. For example, the “use of ‘illegal alien,’ a term considered insensitive by many, reached its low point in 2013, dropping to 5% of terms used. It had consistently been in double digits in the other periods studied, peaking at 21% in 2007.”

But how much impact does word choice really have on perceptions of immigrants and related policies? To assess this, researchers Jennifer Merolla of Claremont Graduate University and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Chris Haynes of the University of California-Riverside examine two data sources — a sample of news content, and a survey of citizen attitudes — and analyze two different dimensions of framing strategy: “policy frames as trying to move public opinion along the dimension of relative rights (i.e., what these persons are entitled to), and immigrant frames as seeking to move opinion primarily along the dimension of autonomous rights (i.e., trying to change public perception of who they fundamentally are).”

Their study, “‘Illegal,’ ‘Undocumented,’ ‘Unauthorized’: Equivalency Frames, Issue Frames and Public Opinion on Immigration,” published in Perspectives on Politics, finds that word choice has a different effect depending on the type of frame. The researchers use the 2007 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) as a platform for research; they systematically interchanged the words “illegal,” “undocumented,” “unauthorized” in questions on immigrant rights and asked respondents how they felt toward immigrants. They also analyzed articles “in mainstream and conservative daily newspapers in New York and Washington, D.C. (the New York Times and Washington Post on the mainstream side, and the New York Post and Washington Times on the conservative side), from 2007 through 2011.” Further, they examined content on three major cable news networks, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, over the same period.

Findings from their 2007 survey-based analysis include:

  • Framing immigrant status as “illegal” or “unauthorized” or “undocumented” does not affect support or opposition to various policies (such as legalization, the Dream Act, birthright citizenship). Americans show equal levels of opposition to legalization whether you use the term “illegal immigrant,” “unauthorized immigrant” or “undocumented immigrant.” On a scale from -2 to 2, legalization was ranked by respondents. The average ranking was -.35 for “illegal”; -.39 for “undocumented” and -.36 for “unauthorized.”
  • However, wide swings in public opinion result from different frames for a policy initiative. When “opportunity to eventually become citizens is used” in the place of “amnesty,” net opposition to legalization virtually disappears. Although the terms reference the same policy, the opposition level to “opportunity to eventually become citizens” was -.04 (on that -2 to 2 scale), whereas the opposition level to “amnesty” was -.7 (a 17-percentage-point difference).
  • Individuals are more supportive of granting citizenship to children born in the United States when it is framed as part of the Constitution rather than framed as a policy that is merely part of “current law.” (The researchers note that in “neither case does opposition to the policy tip over the neutral point, meaning individuals on average in both frames support changing the current policy.”)

Findings from the analysis of media produced during 2007 to 2011 include:

  • Mainstream media were as likely to use the term “illegal” as their conservative counterparts during that period. The term “unauthorized” was used only 21 times in the 5,500 articles examined and the term “undocumented” was used in 11% of stories.
  • Mentions in the media of amnesty (47%) were considerably more frequent than mentions of a “path to citizenship” (27%). Conservative newspapers were more likely to mention amnesty: For example, the Washington Times mentioned amnesty 56% more often as the Washington Post (28%.)
  • References to “anchor babies” (as an alternative to references related to the 14th Amendment) were most frequently made Fox News (39%), but they were also referenced on MSNBC (34%) and in the New York Times (32%).

The authors conclude that policymakers and advocacy organizations should direct more efforts toward framing policies rather than framing immigrants and their status. “For all of the battles fought over the terms used to describe immigrants without legal status (illegal versus undocumented versus unauthorized),” the authors write, “it does not appear that such frames make a perceptible difference for public opinion, at least with respect to the set of policy issues we examined.” They add, “If the primary goal of framing is to move public opinion on immigration policy, groups on either side of the issue divide would find it more effective to focus on efforts to frame policies rather than to battle over the terms used to describe those without legal status.”

Keywords: Hispanic, Latino

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