The Limits of Rights: Claims-making on Behalf of Immigrants

Irene Bloemraad | Sociology | Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 2020

Activists do not just ‘name’ problems faced by migrants; they ‘frame’ them, constructing a particular meaning of the social world. Activists in the United States are especially likely to use rights language. Some appeal to human rights; others call on the history and resonance of civil rights. Those who contest immigrant inclusion often instead evoke ‘American values’. Are these competing frames persuasive? Drawing on a survey experiment of California voters, we examine whether these frames affect support for undocumented immigrants and U.S. citizens in need. We find that although respondents agree that food insecurity, sexual harassment, and inadequate health care violate the human rights of citizens and noncitizens equally, a human rights frame does not equalise support for government action to address the situation. Indeed, overall, respondents are much less supportive of government action for undocumented immigrants than citizens; neither rights nor value frames mitigate this inequality. The civil rights frame, relative to the American values frame, actually decreases respondents’ support for government action, for citizens and noncitizens alike. The type of hardship also matters: in scenarios concerning sexual harassment, legal status is not a barrier to claims-making. These findings reveal some limits of rights language for mobilisation around immigration.