Overcoming Polarization: How to Talk with Immigration Opponents

March 30, 2021

Immigration has never been more polarized. But it wasn’t always that way. In 2005, Republicans and Democrats were only about five percentage points apart in their views on immigration. By 2019, that gap had widened to 47%. Currently, 78% of Democrats regard immigration as positive, while only 31% of Republicans do. 

A study by Nichole Argo and Kate Jassin helps explain why immigration is so polarized. Immigration is tied to our sacred values, which are absolute, non-negotiable moral values. We process sacred values in a different part of our brain associated with rule-based behavior rather than the part governing cost-benefit analysis. 

If immigration is tied to such non-negotiable values, how can we start to change people’s minds whose sacred values are so different from our own?

Here are five steps on how to do so effectively.

Strategies for Meaningful Conversations

1. Start with the Right Mindset

To begin, make sure you are calm and open to listening to the other side. Start by expressing how much you appreciate the person for being willing to engage in this dialogue. Never assume they have bad intentions or are uninformed about immigration. You may also want to begin with topics that have narrow bipartisan support, such as family separation and DREAMers, before moving onto more heavily contested immigration issues.

2. Ask and Acknowledge

We must understand the underlying basis for the other persons’ sacred values if we want to change their minds on immigration. Ask open-ended, nonjudgmental questions, such as “how did you come to feel that way?” or “tell me more about why that value is important to you?” and clarifying questions like “it seems like you are saying _____, is that accurate?” The Argo and Jassin study can help preview what these values may be, as it identifies the most common sacred values each side holds on big immigration issues.

Once identified, respect and validate the person’s values. You can acknowledge how important someone’s sacred value is to them without necessarily agreeing with it. Your affirmation builds trust and helps the other person feel heard.

When sharing an insight that contradicts with the other person’s statements, Youth on Board suggests starting with phrases like “I also think” or “the way I see it” instead of “but” to keep validating the other person’s experiences.

3. Use Moral Reframing

Moral reframing is a rhetorical strategy where you persuade using the other person’s moral values rather than your own. Robb Willer, a Stanford University professor, found that conservatives are more likely to support immigration if arguments are “morally reframed” to appeal to their values. For example, Willer said that one can use the value of a free market by arguing that businesses should have the right to hire whomever they choose, including immigrants.

4. Talk About “Us”

When advocating for immigration, try not to speak in binaries of “immigrants versus Americans,” which unintentionally reinforce the perception of immigrants as outsiders. Frame immigrants and citizens as a collective group composed of people with different levels of exposure to the United States. Some of us have been in the United States for longer, some have more family ties, and some have different immigration statuses on paper. We can bring light to the nuances and complexities of our collective experiences by recognizing the varied experiences which many of us and our families have had immigrating and integrating into this country.

5. Tell Stories

Factual arguments can often lead to debates on whose sources are more credible. Instead, telling stories humanizes the issues and invites people to see them from the storyteller’s point of view. In 2017, more than sixty California residents participated in a social experiment where they debated immigration issues online for a month. While hardly anyone changed their mind, participants found that sharing personal stories helped them humanize different perspectives.

A Path Forward

Changing someone’s sacred views takes time. Open and respectful dialogue is key to reaching understanding on immigration. Exposing ourselves to different views and challenging ourselves to understand the reasons behind our differences is a necessary first step to reduce immigration polarization in our society.


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Ayumi Berstein is a third-year student at Cornell Law School interested in immigration law. She has worked on many immigration law matters before and during law school.

Stephen Yale-Loehr is co-author of Immigration Law and Procedure, the leading twenty-one-volume immigration law treatise, published by LexisNexis. He is also Professor of Immigration Practice at Cornell Law School and of counsel at Miller Mayer LLP in Ithaca, New York. Steve recently presented a webinar on how to overcome immigration polarization. A video of the webinar is here; a podcast is here.