Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

From Coverage to Action: The Immigration Debate and Its Effects on Participation

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

From Coverage to Action: The Immigration Debate and Its Effects on Participation

Article excerpt


The past decade has witnessed a proliferation of media stories about immigration as a result of increases in authorized and unauthorized immigration to the United States. Scholars know little about how this coverage influences political participation across different groups in society. This study employs an experimental design to test the effects of different media frames on immigration in spurring political participation among recent immigrant-rooted communities and non-immigrant-rooted communities. The authors find strong mobilizing effects among Latinos, particularly for frames that highlight social costs and national security concerns, and weak to no effects on Asians, African Americans, and whites.


immigration, Latinos, experiment, media, political participation, frames, mobilization

Immigration issues have become contentious in American politics as a result of a dramatic increase in authorized and unauthorized immigrants to the United States. Perhaps the apex of concern over immigration occurred shortly after the House of Representatives passed the so-called Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, or HR 4437, in December 2005. The bill made it a felony to be an undocumented immigrant and provided criminal sanctions against persons or groups assisting undocumented immigrants. Following its passage, in the spring of 2006, an estimated 3.5 to 5 million immigrants and immigrant rights advocates took to the streets across the nation in protest of HR 4437 (Pantoja, Menjivar, and Magana 2008). This was the single largest civil rights action in American history, and scholars of Latino and immigrant politics scrambled to explain the size and extent of the protests. The most popular, though untested, explanation is that the media played a critical role in spurring immigrants and their sympathizers to action (Barreto et al. 2009).

Research on media and politics suggests that increased media coverage of immigration issues will increase its saliency among the public (Iyengar and Kinder 1987) and in particular among those most directly affected by the issue, namely immigrants (Abrajano and Singh 2009). In addition, the content, tone, and source of immigration news stories will sway evaluations, either positively or negatively (Brader, Valentino, and Suhay 2008). Finally, and most relevant for our purposes, news about immigration may increase the likelihood of political participation (Brader, Valentino, and Suhay 2008). But will such coverage affect all groups equally? If media coverage plays a role in spurring participation as some scholars contend, why did we not observe much of a countermobilization or equal numbers of sympathetic non-Hispanic whites or African Americans joining Latino immigrants at the rallies? That is, why might reading news about an issue affect some populations and not others?

One key reason that we put forward in this article is that the effects of a media message will vary by the characteristics of the consumer. We draw from literature in social psychology, political advertising, and race and ethnic politics to explain why media stories on immigration are salient for Latinos, and to a lesser extent Asians, and spur them to political action, while the same stories have little to no effect on other groups. In so doing, we extend research exploring the nexus between media and political participation to the realm of immigration and different racial and ethnic subgroups.

We employ an experimental design with a student sample and a national Internet sample to isolate the effects of five different immigrant-focused media frames, (1) economic positive, (2) economic negative, (3) social positive, (4) social negative, and a (5) national security story, on the propensity to participate among Latinos and Asians, or immigrant-rooted groups who have large numbers of foreign-born persons, and non-Hispanic whites and African Americans, groups with smaller foreign-born populations. …

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