Suzette Brooks Masters: Demographic Change Is Hard, Especially When Our Leaders Stoke Our Worst Fears

January 30, 2020 – After more than 20 years in the immigrant justice movement, I confess that I missed the mark. In my drive to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees, I was blind to some key realities taking root in America.

I failed to see the surge of cultural anxiety driven by demographic, economic, and social change and how politicians were exploiting it. I didn’t see how that was fueling the rise of white nationalism and the scapegoating of immigrants and other groups labeled a dangerous “other.”  And I didn’t appreciate how echo chambers, polarization and partisanship could threaten the very foundation of our pluralistic democracy.

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After extensive research, now I do.

As I explain in Change Is Hard: Managing Fear and Anxiety about Demographic Change and Immigration in Polarized Times, immigration advocates need to adapt to this new context.

The Problem: Immigration Is a Cultural Battle About Identity and Racial Dominance

Immigration, once seen as a bipartisan policy issue, is now a charged cultural flash point. Americans face unprecedented ideological and political challenges as our identities are used to tear us apart. How we handle the fallout from demographic change and racial, ethnic and religious division has important implications for American democracy.

White identity is solidifying as America becomes more diverse. Decades of increased immigration have led to growing racial and ethnic diversity in the United States and a rise in cultural anxiety among Americans who feel their way of life and place in society are threatened. White alienation and grievance are on the rise as a result. Politicians can gain – and have gained – mass appeal by playing on these fears.

Fear around immigration isn’t new.  Today, nearly 14% of the U.S. population was born outside of the country. The population of foreign-born people hasn’t been this high in generations. After the great wave of immigration from the 1880s to the 1910s, a nativist backlash culminated in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924. The Act established nationality quotas and dramatically reduced immigration for over 40 years. Are we poised once again to shut the door to newcomers as we did a century ago? What are we doing to ensure that doesn’t happen again?

The extremes dominate the immigration debate.  The immigration debate is dominated by the extremes on both sides. The sides feed off one another and remove any opportunity for nuance, complexity, and realistic solutions. Yet about two-thirds of public opinion is at neither extreme. Immigration advocates must acknowledge Americans’ deep uncertainty about the issue and address the concerns of those living in communities in demographic flux.

The stakes are certainly very high. Here’s what the research suggests we should do.

The Solution: Manage the Disruption Caused by Societal Change

Protect democracy first. Immigration is the perfect wedge to divide Americans and weaken our pluralistic democracy. How immigration proponents advance the cause matters. They must resist hyperpolarization and othering of their opponents.

Heal our divides. We must devise interventions that promote greater understanding, empathy, and social cohesion for communities going through demographic shifts. This requires a new focus on engaging with immigrants and receiving community members to heal societal divides. The goal is to turn “them” into “us.” Immigrant integration and social cohesion programs that build bridges across difference help both sides discover each other’s assets and see their futures as intertwined.

Focus on narrative and culture change strategies. The immigration debate is about culture and identity. So we need to engage in culture change work to promote norms, values, and behaviors that support shared ideals of freedom, opportunity, and human dignity. We must advance new narratives that affirm unity and interdependence, create space for complexity, and connect immigration to broader aspirations about how to uplift all Americans.

Leave the echo chamber and grow the base. Supporters of more generous immigration policies need to branch out. We cannot win by staying on one pole of the ideological debate and relying on a small, activated base of supporters. We must compete for some meaningful segment of immigrant skeptics and fight the pull of white nationalism. That means getting out and listening and having a lot of tough, honest conversations.

The Call to Action: Lead with Love

If we want to win, we must oppose structural racism, white nationalism, and inhumane policies in a way that invites our opponents in rather than just calls them out, that acknowledges their fear of change and uncertainty about the future. By leading with love, we can repair our social fabric; forge resilient, inclusive communities; and build a society unified around an expansive vision for the future based on our interdependence and connectedness.

Suzette Brooks Masters serves as Senior Strategist at the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council in Washington DC.

ImmigrationImpact.com is a project of the American Immigration Council