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Moving Forward Together

Immigration Narrative Partnerships that Work

By Chuy Sanchez, Tammy Besherse & Diego Iniguez-Lopez

Immigrants have always been a part of our country’s story, and their contributions are what make our history unique and our collective future promising. Americans are understandably frustrated with our immigration policies, but instead of offering real solutions, some politicians are exploiting fears and playing on prejudices, touting extreme approaches that will not work in practice and do not uphold American values.1 Meanwhile, we know from research and experience around the country that there are concrete solutions to the challenges posed by current immigration policies. Painting a picture of what our country can look like with these solutions in place is crucial.

Over the past six years, the Opportunity Agenda has trained immigrant-equal-rights advocates and created a body of research and tools on the frames and messages that resonate with Americans. As the immigrant-equal-rights movement seeks federal policy reform and relief from detention and deportations, the organization leads in shaping—while disseminating a common narrative—the messages that audiences as well as policymakers receive. One place where the organization has successfully collaborated with local advocates is South Carolina. There it increased awareness and helped form coalitions that defeated key parts of the state’s anti-immigration legislation.

An Immigration Narrative

The use of a narrative is central to the Opportunity Agenda’s communications within a larger advocacy. A narrative is a set of frames to tell the story of a particular issue.2 Developing, honing, and field-testing a narrative entails collecting and integrating relevant opinion and media research with the values and priorities of movement leaders and on-the-ground experience in mobilizing the base and persuading target audiences. By adapting a narrative to their voice and purposes, diverse actors within the movement can “run with it.”

Social justice advocates are not always effective in telling a big story. They—we—often focus on short-term wins or on imparting information or statistics without context or persuasive arguments. To move hearts, minds, and policy over the long term, we need to frame messages within values-based narratives that can transform the larger conversation, shift culture, and result in lasting change.

Another way to think about a narrative is as a set of broad themes and values helping connect with persuadable audiences and build support for change.3 Anti-immigrant spokespeople have a clear narrative with two main elements: that immigrants are a threat to law and order and that they overwhelm scarce resources such as health care, education, and employment.4

Those of us working for positive immigration policies lack similar cohesion; we focus more on each specific policy or approach rather than a big story.5 We need to group our communications around some simple and memorable themes so that our messages begin to form a drumbeat in persuadable audiences’ minds and so that a positive story emerges to challenge the dominant themes that anti-immigrant spokespeople have been so successful in promoting. Supporting and promoting a narrative in our communication do not mean that we all must say the same thing with the same words. Rather, we each find ways to translate the narrative and its core themes to the audiences we know best.

Social justice advocates are not always effective in telling a big story.

Narratives, to be successful, should

  • lead with shared values;
  • describe problems but also point audiences toward clear solutions;
  • be informed by public opinion research, media analysis, communications practice, and collective experience;
  • be adapted to key audiences, spokespeople, subissues, and circumstances; and
  • support a coherent “drumbeat” of stories, messages, and events—both short- and long-term.

Developing a shared narrative involves collaboration in which stakeholders give input and help shape elements that not only are true to the stakeholders’ values and expertise but also resonate with target audiences. A subcommittee of issue experts and communications professionals works together to produce a draft narrative that is later vetted within the sector and tested through research and experience. Ideally it should draw from media analysis and specific opinion research.

The use of research on values, public opinion, media, and framing, as well as conversations with advocates and affected communities, helps advocates understand public attitudes and craft strategies for influencing public debate. Toolkits, talking points, fact sheets, and other materials translate narratives, social science research, and policy analysis into usable forms shown to resonate with audiences. The impact of this type of collaboration is measured quantitatively and qualitatively. The quantitative measures are the number of social justice partners served, tools disseminated, leaders trained, stories placed in the media, audiences reached, blog references, and Web visitors. The qualitative measures relate to the extent to which the activities and materials are being used by partners and picked up by reporters, policymakers, and other opinion leaders.

The Opportunity Agenda has been using its expertise to conduct opinion and media research, develop shared narratives and messaging, and train leaders on persuasive communications and media engagement. Its field training focuses on leading interactions with advocates: communications training while sustaining a conversation about best practices. Focusing on deeply held values such as opportunity, community, and redemption, the organization identifies and sharpens common narratives to increase support for expanding opportunity in America. The objectives are building a unified, effective communications strategy, improving public discourse, and creating public awareness of positive policies. The organization intends to move hearts and minds and thereby inform policy and improve people’s lives.

The Opportunity Agenda has become a critical communications stakeholder in the immigrant-equal-rights movement and has amplified the movement’s work on specific issues to meet the most urgent challenges. The Opportunity Agenda’s narrative focuses on upholding due process and human rights in the face of harsh enforcement tactics. The long-term goal is to grow a cadre of leaders and spokespeople and reach audiences with a message that informs policy development and spurs greater public support for immigrants’ human rights. This approach has had success in the southeastern United States.


Southeast United States: A Regional Strategy

With respect to immigrant equal rights, the Southeast is a region that has great communications needs and little capacity to meet those needs. New Americans have increasingly been moving to this area of the country. For example, the foreign born share of the population in South Carolina has increased threefold since 1990.6 The Latino population grew the fastest in the United States, from 2000 to 2011, in Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.7 Fear of the new, combined with the general conservatism of sometimes even the more progressive segments of the population, has created barriers to integration and voter support for repressive legislation. Focus-group research in South Carolina, Tennessee, and Alabama found the following:8


  • Participants from every group, including African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and persuadable whites, believed that undocumented immigrants, whom they equated with Latinos, were a direct threat to their economic stability. Economic concerns drove their negative attitudes about immigrants.
  • When faced with facts that they were not aware of and did not expect to be true, participants expressed discomfort with some immigration enforcement realities and said that they wanted the system to be fair. They objected to the separation of families during immigration enforcement and to racial profiling. They opposed policies that would allow imprisonment and deportation without a hearing.
  • The messages that appealed most to these participants defined the debate in terms of fundamental fairness, maintaining America’s core identity, and reflecting America’s values. For instance, participants were troubled by the possibility that some policies caused due process violations. In these cases, people were more compelled by the perception that there was a danger to the value of due process than by the idea of protecting the rights of particular people.

People in all the focus groups expressed the desire for a solution and impatience with the lack of progress in finding one. Although frustration leaves people open to bad choices, it also gives advocates the opportunity to be the ones who offer a solution that is workable and consistent with American values.

The more we are able to show that the policies we advocate are more in line with our nation’s values than are anti-immigrant measures, the easier it will be to make the case for positive policies rather than only reacting to bad ones. We must communicate the values that native-born Americans have in common with immigrant Americans. While audiences are by no means uniform in their thoughts about and reactions to immigration, recent public opinion research reveals promising strategies for advocates to reach a range of audiences.9 With strategy, careful consideration of language and stories, and a drumbeat of common themes, we can improve dialogue on these issues and set the stage for better immigration policy. A positive example of this approach is the immigrant-equal-rights movement in South Carolina.


South Carolina: A Case Study

South Carolina in June 2011 passed legislation that directed enforcement officials to check the immigration status of persons whom the enforcement officials suspected to be undocumented; the legislation also criminalized transporting or harboring an undocumented immigrant and traveling within the state without documentation.10 The legislation, Senate Bill 20 or Act 69, followed a pattern of legislation from southern states targeting immigrant communities and paralleled one of the most draconian state immigration laws, Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070.11

Before S.B. 20 went into effect in South Carolina, numerous civil rights groups filed a class action lawsuit.12 The plaintiffs included the Low Country Immigration Coalition, the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network, and the Service Employees International Union.13 The U.S. Department of Justice joined the suit against South Carolina; the Justice Department claimed that the legislation was unconstitutional and interfered with the federal government’s authority to make and enforce immigration policy.14


The district court granted, on the basis of federal preemption of state law, the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction against certain provisions of S.B. 20.15 The court enjoined the provisions that directed local and state police enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of persons in routine traffic stops and other contacts if the enforcement officials had a “reasonable suspicion” that such persons were undocumented; that made state crimes of harboring, sheltering, or transporting unlawfully present persons; and that criminalized the failure to carry documentation.16

Six months after the district court enjoined South Carolina’s S.B. 20, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision on Arizona’s notorious S.B. 1070.17 The legislation, which Arizona’s governor had signed into law on April 23, 2010, made noncompliance with federal alien registration requirements a state misdemeanor (Section 3); criminalized the act of an undocumented immigrant seeking or engaging in work (Section 5(C)); authorized officers to arrest a person, without a warrant, if the officers had probable cause to believe that the person had committed an offense that made the person removable from the United States (Section 6); and required officers who stop, detain, or arrest a person, in some circumstances, to verify the person’s immigration status with federal immigration authorities (Section 2(B)).18 The legislation was challenged soon after by the federal government.19 That same month the district court in Arizona preempted the above provisions from taking effect and, in April 2011, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower-court decision.20

The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in December 2011 and released its decision in June 2012.21 The Court used preemption principles to determine whether federal law allowed Arizona to implement the challenged provisions of S.B. 1070.22 The Court found that Section 3, which forbade the “willful failure to complete or carry an alien registration document” in violation of federal law and codified it as a state crime was preempted by federal law because Congress comprehensively occupies the field of alien registration.23 The Court held that Section 5(C), which criminalized an undocumented immigrant who worked or sought work, was preempted because it conflicted with the framework that Congress created with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.24 Section 6, which allowed an officer to arrest a person without a warrant if the officer had probable cause to believe that the person was removable under federal immigration law, was preempted because it gave state officers powers in enforcing immigration laws beyond what Congress allowed.25

Ultimately the Supreme Court upheld Section 2(B), which required state officers to (1) make a reasonable attempt to determine the immigration status of a person whom they stop, detain, or arrest, on another legitimate basis, if the officers have a reasonable suspicion that the person is unlawfully present in the United States and (2) check the immigration status of an arrested person before the person is released.26

The Supreme Court found that Section 2(B) had limits on police power, that “consultation” between state officers and federal immigration authorities was allowed by the federal immigration scheme, and that, absent further findings of egregious facts, Section 2(B) could be read as not to allow impermissible delays in detention.27 Thus, the Court left the door open for future challenges to S.B. 1070. The Court wrote that detaining people solely to verify their immigration status would raise constitutional concerns, that Section 2(B) required an immigration status check only during a lawful detention or a detainee’s release, and that “[t]his opinion does not foreclose other preemption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect.”28

Despite the Supreme Court upholding Section 2(B), its decision in Arizona dealt a blow to multiple provisions in S.B. 1070 as well as other copycat versions of the legislation. Federal courts followed its precedent by striking down similar legislation in Alabama, Georgia, Utah, and Indiana.29

After the ruling in Arizona, the district court in South Carolina reexamined its preliminary injunction.30 The court kept in place its injunction on the provisions that made harboring, sheltering, or transporting an undocumented immigrant a state crime; the court reasoned that, based on the Arizona ruling, such provisions conflicted with federal immigration law.31 The court also kept in place the injunction on the provisions that made not carrying an alien registration card a state misdemeanor; the district court followed the Supreme Court in finding that “‘[p]ermitting the State to impose its own penalties for the federal offenses would conflict with the careful framework Congress adopted.’”32

However, the district court lifted its injunction on the provision directing enforcement officials to check the immigration status of suspected undocumented immigrants, based on the Supreme Court’s holding that such a statute, facially, “‘only requires state officers to conduct a status check during the course of an authorized, lawful detention or after a detainee has been released, [and thus] the provision likely would survive preemption—at least absent some showing that it has other consequences that are adverse to federal law and its objectives.’”33 South Carolina appealed the remaining injunction, but the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s determination that the enjoined provisions were preempted by federal law.34

The parties to this case settled in March 2014, and the district court issued a final judgment stipulating that South Carolina would follow a South Carolina attorney general opinion in interpreting the provisions directing enforcement officials to question suspected undocumented immigrants and detain them.35 The Attorney General opinion states that S.B. 20

does not permit officers to prolong the original stop based upon the officer’s inquiry into or based on a determination, suspicion, or admission concerning a person’s immigration status[;] … does not authorize prolonging the detention of a person in jail or prison simply to determine the person’s immigration status[; and] … does not authorize state and local officials to arrest … an individual [who is simply] believed or determined to be unlawfully present for any purpose, even to transfer the individual to federal custody.36

Thus the attorney general opinion mandated several further limitations on S.B. 20 by specifying what enforcement officials were prohibited from doing based on S.B. 20. The settlement meant that South Carolina would no longer defend the legislation, that the litigation against the state was over, and that the immigrant community in South Carolina and its supporters were victorious against most of S.B. 20.37


Partnerships that Work

Litigation was only one part of a multifaceted struggle for immigrant equal rights in South Carolina. Before the victory in federal district court, the Opportunity Agenda partnered with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which was already actively engaged in building the South Carolina Immigration Coalition and, for the long term, building a sustainable progressive movement in South Carolina. The Leadership Conference had identified a need to support efforts to combat S.B. 20 after its introduction in 2010 and its eventual passage in 2011. With Lindsey Graham, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee member representing South Carolina, the organization knew that the state would be key in finding a solution to the flawed immigration system.

One tenet of the Leadership Conference’s field organizing is to meet people where they are, and that is what was done in South Carolina. The Leadership Conference first built a relationship with a trusted partner, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. Then the Leadership Conference worked with South Carolina Appleseed’s network to bring diverse leaders together for immigration listening tours in Columbia and Charleston in the fall of 2010. At meetings in the listening tours the attendees discussed S.B. 20, immigration as a civil rights issue, civil and human rights issues in the state broadly, the power of working in a coalition, areas of need, and opportunities to collaborate to build the progressive movement in South Carolina. Through these conversations, the Leadership Conference was able to build support for a coalition, determine existing capacity, figure out assistance needs, weigh these with organizational capacity and resources, and begin to provide assistance and strategic guidance in building the coalition. Since then, the Leadership Conference has helped build the coalition through day-to-day guidance—communications and organizing training, campaign planning and implementation, meeting facilitation, strategic planning, and event planning support.

One major success of the South Carolina Immigration Coalition was in deploying strategies that slowed down the passage of S.B. 20 and laying the groundwork for the bill’s injunction. S.B. 20’s sponsors prefiled the anti-immigrant legislation in December 2010, and it was introduced to the state senate in January 2011.38 By hosting civic engagement days, encouraging call-in days, building relationships with members, and using communications strategies such as opinion-editorial pieces and radio interviews, the coalition was able to raise concerns with the bill and help slow down its passage. Nevertheless, the senate passed S.B. 20 on June 1, 2011; the house passed it on June 21; and the governor signed it on June 27.39 Civil rights organizations, with the Justice Department joining, petitioned the federal courts to enjoin multiple provisions of S.B. 20; they succeeded.

By adapting a narrative to their voice and purposes, diverse actors within the movement can “run with it.”

On the day of the federal district court arguments, coalition members worked extremely hard to create a strategy that included prayer vigils across the state and a peaceful rally with the affected community outside the courthouse. Demonstrators marched by the courthouse while, as the coalition members had coordinated, faith leaders prayed outside the courthouse, civil rights lawyers waited to walk inside, and the plaintiffs, most of whom were coalition and community members, were present. The moment when the parts of the coordinated strategy came together was amazing and spoke volumes about how far the coalition had grown, the relationships that had been built, the reach of the coalition, and the coordination and hard work that had taken place.

The South Carolina Immigration Coalition is now monitoring the state’s implementation of the S.B. 20 provision directing law enforcement officials to question suspected undocumented immigrants only after “lawful contact,” as provided in the settlement. The coalition has created a mechanism for filing complaints about the law’s implementation. Beyond S.B. 20, the coalition is focusing on comprehensive immigration policy reform and is building support in the state for federal changes through civil engagement, grassroots organizing, and communications strategies. The coalition is ready to challenge other anti-immigrant bills introduced at the state level and to advocate positive state immigration laws, such as the South Carolina DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act.40

Laura Cahue, a South Carolina Appleseed community organizer and alumna of the Opportunity Agenda’s communications leadership course, commented on how the partnership has benefited her work with the coalition:

The encouragement and support made me feel like a colleague and not a novice. I noticed that I am better able to distill my messages and sort out the main points I want to communicate. I am a better writer. I placed a letter to the editor in South Carolina’s newspaper The State on my first try. The response to that piece was positive and it came from both sides of the debate. I am a better negotiator and am more willing to consider compromises on certain issues if it will get me to my goal. Before this training and support, I really could not focus on my goal and remained forever stuck in never ending battles over small details. Missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.41


The South Carolina story shows that making real and lasting progress toward full opportunity and human rights requires investment in strategies that, while often neglected, are crucial to the infrastructure of social change—a sophisticated media and communications strategy; a well of affirmative, pragmatic policy ideas; and a strengthening of nonprofit and policy allies’ ability to move hearts and minds as well as policies. These strategies must be combined with an understanding of and connection to America’s diverse and vibrant communities and the complex intersection of race, income, gender, immigration, sexual orientation, age, and other aspects of who we are as a people. Making progress requires mastery of traditional and emerging media, of research of problems and solutions, and of pragmatic problem solving. Making progress requires bridging racial and ethnic communities and both supporting and challenging the government as necessary. The Opportunity Agenda brings all such skills to the struggle for social justice and, with strong partnerships, has used them to achieve success.

Chuy Sánchez
Communications Trainer

The Opportunity Agenda
568 Broadway Suite 701
New York, NY 10012

Tammy Besherse
Staff Attorney

South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center
P.O. Box 7187
Columbia, SC 29202

Diego Iñiguez-Lopez
Robert L. Carter Fellow

The Opportunity Agenda
568 Broadway Suite 701
New York, NY 10012

1 See Loren Siegel, Opportunity Agenda, Communications Research: Talking Immigration Issues: Three Studies (June 2012).

2 Julie Fisher-Rowe, Opportunity Agenda, Visions, Values, and Voice: A Communications Toolkit 14 (n.d.).

3 Id.

4 Loren Siegel, Opportunity Agenda, Immigration and Gender: Analysis of Media Coverage and Public Opinion (Dec. 2012).

5 Id.

6 Immigration Policy Center, New Americans in South Carolina: The Political and Economic Power of Immigrants, Latinos, and Asians in the Palmetto State 1 (May 2013).

7 Anna Brown & Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project, Mapping the Latino Population, by State, County and City (Aug. 29, 2013).

8 See Siegel, supra note 1.

9 See id.

10 Act 69, 2011 S.C. Acts. See Harriet McLeod, South Carolina Immigration Bill Passed by State House, Huffington Post, May 25, 2011.

11 2010 Ariz. Sess. Laws 113. See Robbie Brown, Parts of Immigration Law Blocked in South Carolina, New York Times, Dec. 22, 2011. Senate Bill 1070, like many pieces of legislation targeting immigrants, was supported by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization of state legislators and private corporations; among its members is the Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison corporation in the United States; corporation executives identified immigrant detention as their next big market (Laura Sullivan, Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law, NPR, Oct. 28, 2010).

12 See Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, Low Country Immigration Coalition v. Haley, No. 2:11-cv-02779 (D.S.C. filed Oct. 12, 2011).

13 Id.

14 Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, United States v. South Carolina, 2:11-cv-02958 (D.S.C. filed Oct. 31, 2011); Press Release, U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Justice Challenges South Carolina’s Immigration Law (Oct. 31, 2011).

15 United States v. South Carolina, 840 F. Supp. 2d 898 (D.S.C. 2011).

16 Id.

17 Arizona v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2492 (2012).

18 2010 Ariz. Sess. Laws 113.

19 Complaint, United States v. Arizona, No. CV 10-1413 (D. Ariz. filed July 6, 2010).

20 United States v. Arizona, 641 F.3d 339 (9th Cir. 2011); United States v. Arizona, 703 F. Supp. 2d 980 (D. Ariz. 2010).

21 Arizona, 132 S. Ct. 2492; Arizona v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 845 (2011) (granting certiorari).

22 Arizona, 132 S. Ct. at 2500.

23 Id. at 2501–3.

24 Id. at 2503–5.

25 Id. at 2505–7.

26 Id. at 2507–10.

27 Id.

28 Id. at 2509–10.

29 See United States v. Alabama, 691 F.3d 1269 (11th Cir. 2012) (enjoining provisions that criminalized undocumented immigrant failing to carry immigration documentation; undocumented immigrant working or seeking work; and transporting, harboring, or inducing undocumented immigrant to enter state); Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights v. Governor of Georgia, 691 F.3d 1250 (11th Cir. 2012) (affirming injunction of provision that criminalized transportation or moving of undocumented immigrant, harboring undocumented immigrant, and inducing undocumented immigrant to enter state); Utah Coalition of La Raza v. Herbert, No. 2:11-cv-401 (C.D. Utah June 18, 2014) (enjoining provisions that prohibited local governments from limiting their cooperation with any law enforcement agency investigating or enforcing federal immigration laws, criminalized harboring or inducing an undocumented immigrant to enter state, and authorized state officers to arrest person, without warrant, when officer had “reasonable cause” to believe that person was subject to removal or had committed aggravated felony); Buquer v. City of Indianapolis, No. 1:11-cv-00708 (S.D. Ind. March 29, 2013) (striking down provisions that authorized state officers to arrest people subject to removal order by immigration court, detainer or notice of action issued by federal immigration authorities, or past indictment or conviction for aggravated felony, as defined by federal immigration law).

30 United States v. South Carolina, 906 F. Supp. 2d 463 (D.S.C. 2012) (citing Arizona, 132 S. Ct. 2492 (2012)).

31 Id. at 467–70 (citing Arizona, 132 S. Ct. at 2501–5).

32 Id. at 469 (quoting Arizona, 132 S. Ct. at 2502).

33 Id. at 470 (quoting Arizona, 132 S. Ct. at 2509).

34 United States v. South Carolina, 720 F.3d 518 (4th Cir. 2013).

35 Final Judgment, United States v. South Carolina, No. 2:11-cv-02958 (D.S.C. March 4, 2014).

36 Letter from Robert D. Cook, Solicitor General, South Carolina Office of the Attorney General, to Richard M. Gergel, Judge, U.S. District Court 1 (March 3, 2014).

37 Harriet McLeod, South Carolina, Rights Groups Settle Immigration Law Challenge, Reuters, March 3, 2014.

38 S.B. 20, 119th Sess. (S.C. 2011–2012).

39 Id.

40 See H. 4735, 120th Sess. (S.C. 2014).

41 E-mail Interview by Chuy Sánchez with Laura Cahue, Community Organizer, South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center (Feb. 7, 2013).

*Photos courtesy of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center.

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