If aliens come to Earth in peace, who should be their spokesperson, and carry their message of peace?
If your answer is to hire a consulting firms and lobbyists in Washington D.C., and use proxies, then you have probably spent too much time in Washington D.C. or you are an oppressive regime that specializes in oil exploration and purchasing weapons from American companies.
If your answer is that their spokesperson should probably be an alien, well, that’s most people’s answer, so pat yourself on the back for being a rational person.
So if immigrants come to the United States in peace to work, live, and contribute, who should their spokesperson be? Who should bring the message?
It has been a defining struggle within the immigrant rights movement. Well-meaning, well-intentioned folks have been baffled by immigrants who ask over and over that they be the messengers to the public of their own stories. “We can speak for ourselves,” activists say, “we know the risks, and we are prepared to accept them. We can tell our own stories.”
Major pro-migrant organizations usually focus a lot of their energies on developing innovative messaging frames. This is a very good thing. Last year, what seems like a very long time ago, I wrote about the need for Democrats to change the frame in which they talk about immigration. If they accept criminality in the immigration narrative, then the immigration reform “solution” will treat immigrants like criminals.
Fortunately, this is changing, and people are working hard behind the scenes to develop new frames for talking about immigration. What is more, folks are turning more and more to the tried and true organizing method of telling stories. Statistics, while representing the facts on the positive influence immigrants have on the economy, for example, do not appeal to our values as human beings. Stories of immigrants, however, told by immigrants, force people to acknowledge that immigrants are human beings, just like they are. For the current generation of young immigrant rights activists, this started happening a couple years ago, when Chicago activists like Tania Unzueta started openly declaring their status at public events and for the media. UCLA activist Matias Ramos took to CNN. “Coming Out of the Shadows” events were born nationwide, and then, people decided to take on even more risk and participate in civil disobedience actions. Jose Antonio Vargas is, in fact, a latecomer when it comes to taking huge risks by disclosing his immigration status.
I used the example of aliens at the beginning of this post, because for many Americans, that is what immigrants are. Alien. The Other. Something they fear and don’t understand. I remember as a little girl going through my mother’s purse and looking at her green card, which had printed in big block letters – ALIEN. We would joke about it, but it’s not really that funny. It’s trite, but people are people, no matter where they’re from. And most people just want to lead happy, fulfilling lives, raise their families, see the world, and have some fun in the process.
So how do we take the public perception of immigrants from “aliens” to people?
We show them by telling stories. Our stories. People who aren’t immigrants can tell stories about the immigrants they know and the stories that move them. But more powerful than that are the immigrants who tell their own stories.
This is similar to what has happened with the LGBT rights movement. Studies have shown time and time again that people are more likely to support LGBT rights if they actually know someone who is LGBT.
When folks actually hear or read some body’s story and listen to them speak, we literally break down the alienation, the artificial walls between us that have been created by using words that evoke the “Other” – alien. There is nothing alien about other people, and we must work to rediscover that.
The messenger matters just as much as the right message. Good luck, and find your own story to tell!