Working Papers

Framing the Immigrant Movement as about Rights, Family, or Economics

Which Appeals Resonate and for Whom?


Although social movement scholars in the United States have long ignored activism over immigration, this movement raises important theoretical and empirical questions. Which movement frames resonate most with the “public”? Is the rights “master” frame persuasive in making the case for noncitizens? We leverage survey experiments—largely the domain of political scientists and public opinion researchers—to examine how much economic, human/citizenship rights, and family unity frames resonate with Californians. We pay particular attention to how potentially distinct “publics,” or sub-groups, might react to each frame. We find that alternative framings resonate with—at best—one particular political subgroup of the public and, dauntingly, frames that resonated with one group often alienated others. Thus, while activists and political theorists may hope that appeals to human rights can expand American notions of membership, such a frame does not help the immigrant rights movement. Instead, attitudes toward legalization change the most when the issue is framed as about family unity. But this only holds among self-reported conservatives. These findings underscore the challenges confronting the immigrant movement and the need for scholars to reevaluate how historically progressive rights language does little for immigrant claims-making.