What we don’t talk about when we talk about immigration

How do Americans feel about immigrant detention or deportation policies, policies that tear families apart, undermine community cohesion, and erode public trust in law enforcement, not to mention cost taxpayers millions of dollars every year? Well, actually, we don’t know, because no one’s asking.

Polls on American attitudes about immigration are fairly common. Usually, they include general questions on what should be done about "illegal immigration," whether "illegal immigrants" take American jobs, whether English proficiency should be a stipulation of citizenship, or which groups of immigrants the U.S. government should allow to stay. First, we’ll point out that referring to a human being’s very existence as a criminal act is not only dehumanizing but is also in direct contrast to AFSC’s values as an organization deeply committed to advancing immigrant rights. Moreover, this type of language only serves to perpetuate a damaging and inaccurate narrative in which immigrants are associated with criminal behavior. Beyond that, the breadth of the questions grossly oversimplifies the issue. “Should they stay or should they go?” ignores the realities of immigrants’ daily experiences and the inhumane and unnecessary policies they are subject to while in detention, policies that are in violation of standards set by legal precedent and the U.S. Constitution’s commitment to due process.

Yet, the only people being asked their opinion on detention and deportation policies are self-described Hispanics, and (spoiler alert!), they're not crazy about them, or at least they weren’t back in October 2014 when Pew last asked them. Of course people should be asked about issues that disproportionately affect them, but failing to poll U.S. Americans as a whole on such an important national issue implies that those not directly affected by inhumane immigration policies are absolved of any responsibility to care about the way we treat millions of people in the United States (including immigrants, forced migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers). That kind of thinking is at the root of the problem itself.

The polls may not be talking about immigrant detention, but at least it’s getting covered in the news, right? Wrong. Aside from exploiting the notion of “immigration reform” for presidential election news fodder, even major news outlets seem to have lost what interest they had in presenting the plight of too many actual immigrants for what it is -- an escape from violence that’s responded to with racism and injustice. At the time of this article’s writing, the entire first page of a Google News search for “Immigrant Detention” yielded zero search results from any of the major print, broadcast, or online news outlets. The news outlets that were talking about it? Progressive blogs like Fusion, Slate, and ThinkProgress, and local newspapers from cities with large immigrant populations, like the Austin Statesman and the Houston Press, or those with controversial detention centers, like the Reading Eagle. We're happy that organizations and news outlets are beginning to pay more attention to this issue, but we need to broaden the conversation to the national level because, right now, the average American is effectively being insulated by the national media from a human rights crisis that’s happening all around us, and it’s not going away, especially not if we fail to ask meaningful questions about it.

Why are pollsters only asking the majority of Americans whether immigration is inconvenient to them? Why are national media outlets still questioning the legality of human beings instead of the policies that incarcerate them, in some cases for a profit?

No one is asking what you think about America’s immigrant detention crisis, but you can tell them anyway. Tell Congress to end its detention quota. You can also help us begin to change the narrative on immigration by learning more about immigrant detention policies and what AFSC is doing to both support immigrant communities and reform the policies that affect them.

Have you seen a poll on immigrant detention that we missed? Share it with us in comments.