Rapid-response support is important, but immigration funders must also invest in shifting culture

Written by: Rev. Ryan M. Eller

Date: August 09, 2018

Recent headlines have been filled with stories of families that are separated at the border and asylum-seekers who are treated like criminals.

For weeks, organizations have been in rapid-response mode, sending people to the border to capture real stories, provide legal counsel and rally in support of the countless lives that hang in an uncertain balance.

Our movement’s leaders are tired, but more committed than ever.

This moment has been critical for the public to understand the plight of immigrant families who come here seeking nothing more than safety, hoping the American dream is still alive.

The national attention has opened people’s eyes and stirred new empathy. However, for those of us who have been working in this space for years, none of this is new.

The current administration’s “zero tolerance” policy gave rise to a level of cruelty that we hoped was just a painful part of our history that we had learned from.

The truth is anti-immigrant sentiment did not begin with Trump. All he has done is fan the flames and exploit an existing undercurrent of fear and blame that has long percolated below our country’s surface.

Some argue that the solution to all of this is simply to elect new leaders, or perhaps to pass new policies.

Traditionally, in our movement, these strategies are what we look to for a long-term fix. But, in this moment of reckoning, it’s time for us to fully embrace that they haven’t led to the transformative shifts that we’ve needed.

So here we are.

The world is looking to the southern border, watching children abducted from their parents.

Everybody is rushing to take action. Everybody is scrambling in this urgent moment to stop the bleeding and make sure that we end the practice of family separation and child detention.

With the eyes of the world focused on immigrants, these media moments are critical. They are the moments that make people care.

But the truth is: We cannot subsist in perpetuity under a rapid response mindset. There has to be a larger aim.

When we scramble to stop the bleeding, it has to be with the knowing that there is something more coming: a real cure; a healing that will make it so that we will not have to keep scrambling forever.

At Define American, we believe that cure is to fundamentally improve our cultural attitudes towards the movement of human beings from one place to another.

We do this by harnessing the power of stories and embedding those narratives strategically into forms of media, primarily news and entertainment media.

A recent poll found that the TV news station someone watches is a stronger predictor of their feelings about immigrants than their partisan political affiliation.

Entertainment media is a largely untapped resource that has the power to touch millions of hearts and minds through a single television show or film.

Entertainment and pop culture often create the lens through which we see the world. We unconsciously watch the ways that people act or treat others, and they provide us with a social script for how we engage with people around us.

A 2016 study published by Josh Katz of the New York Times suggested:

“If you had to guess how strongly a place supported Donald J. Trump in the election, would you rather know how popular ‘Duck Dynasty’ is there, or how George W. Bush did there in 2000? It turns out the relationship with the TV show is stronger. That’s how closely connected politics and culture can be.”

This is what the anti-immigrant establishment has understood for so long: Shifting the culture through media is the key to changing our policies and our identity as Americans.

For decades, they have embedded a toxic and dehumanizing narrative about immigrants into our culture, because they know we can only treat people inhumanely if we don’t recognize them as fully human – as fully American.

We need funders who support immigrant freedom to understand this, too; we cannot improve the politics of immigration until we improve the cultural lens through which immigrants are seen.

Some funders see culture change as something they can invest in “eventually” once the urgent moments have passed. But the urgent moments will keep coming over and over again if we don’t start to invest in a real, transformative shift now.

As a leader of an organization that has been working to improve the cultural conversation about immigrants since 2011, I can tell you that this work is hard, and it takes a lot of time and resources, but it is critical to our movement’s ultimate success.

Rev. Ryan M. Eller is executive director of Define American. Follow @EllerRyan and @DefineAmerican on Twitter.

Photo by C Slack. Used under Creative Commons license.