Building Public Understanding of Comprehensive Immigration Reform:

A Communications Toolkit

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Welcome to Building Public Understanding of Comprehensive Immigration Reform—a collection of framing research, recommendations, and sample communications.

This toolkit is designed to help advocates of comprehensive immigration reform increase public understanding about:

  • why immigration is so important to our nation’s economic and social wellbeing;
  • what’s wrong with our current immigration system and why it needs to be updated;
  • the importance of building a simplified, modernized immigration system, including visa reform and a pathway to citizenship for those already here; and
  • which solutions are appropriately scaled to address the size of the problem.

This toolkit is based on research supported through a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It is designed to help immigration reform advocates to frame comprehensive immigration reform and related issues as important policy fields and matters of public concern. The toolkit models how to use the FrameWorks Institute’s evidence-based recommendations for communicating with average Americans about these issues in ways that build public understanding and support. The kit’s materials include:

  • sample “ready to go” communications that can be used as is or adapted and repurposed for your organization’s needs;
  • communications examples that demonstrate the “do’s and don’ts” of the framing recommendations;
  • graphics and an interactive game that model the key concepts of the recommendations;
  • annotations that explain the framing strategies being illustrated.

When communicating with the public or policymakers, users are encouraged to borrow toolkit language verbatim if desired, or adapt it to their needs—no citation or special permissions are needed in this instance. For other uses of toolkit materials – such as incorporating these materials into other trainings or communications resources - please refer to FrameWorks Institute’s terms of use for guidance on seeking permissions.

For 15 years, FrameWorks Institute research has demonstrated that effective communications can help activate the public’s engagement with complex social issues—such as the changes needed to our immigration policies in order to advance the nation’s economic and social interests. This toolkit is based on the findings of nearly five years of multi-method social science research that queried the thinking of more than 13,000 Americans and included expert interviews, literature reviews, peer discourse sessions, on-the-street interviews, large-scale surveys and usability trials. For more on the evidence base that informs the recommendations in this toolkit, visit our website.

Writing credits: Jenn Nichols and Moira O’Neil
Design credits: Rob Shore, Holly Valero and Chris Vo.

The Big Picture

This short article is intended for use by communicators and other framers working in the field of immigration reform to inform colleagues and other supporters about the logic behind the strategic framing approach. It is the short version of the strategy, intended to be accessible to people new to the idea of framing, and persuasive to those who are starting from a different set of assumptions about how communications work.

Anticipate Public Thinking

Public thinking is like a swamp – and it can be hard to get your messages through. With a map, you can navigate it.

Play Swamp Drop in a new browser window.

Key Framing Guides

Useful guides to keep communicators on frame.

Talking Points

Review the key messages that are the campaign’s major themes.


Stay on message in the face of tough questions.

You Say, They Think

This chart offers helpful strategies for choosing the right tested frame elements to ensure that the message you say is the message people hear.

Sample Communications

These materials apply the tested frame elements to communications opportunities such as editorials, social media updates, and program descriptions. They can be adapted to local contexts (for example, adding local references or site-specific information) or restructured for different formats (for example, repurposing an editorial as a blog post or public remarks.)

Metaphor Visualization

This metaphor visualization is a resource that explains and exemplifies the Immigration Sail Explanatory Metaphor in a short visual narrative.

Research Base

Finish the Story on Immigration: A FrameWorks Multi-Media MessageMemo (2014)

This Multimedia MessageMemo summarizes the findings from a comprehensive multi-method investigation of how Americans view the immigration system and recommends specific reframing tools that demonstrated strong effects in redirecting thinking and elevating support for comprehensive immigration reform. It includes videos and infographics to help advocates visualize the research findings and appreciate the impact of the reframing tools. (PDF)

Getting to "We": Mapping the Gaps Between Expert and Public Understandings of Immigration Reform (2014)

This report lays the groundwork for a larger effort to reframe the public debate on immigration and immigration reform by comparing how experts talk and Americans think about immigration, the immigration system, and comprehensive immigration reform. Using data from interviews with both expert and pubic informants, the report details a set of key communications challenges and presents initial strategies to address these challenges.

Stories Matter: Field Frame Analysis on Immigration (2014)

This Field Frame Analysis maps the competing narratives used by influential organizations to frame the debate on immigration and immigration reform. It finds that narratives that support restrictive immigration policies are more coherent and complete — and therefore more likely to “stick” in the public’s mind — than those that support comprehensive immigration reform. The report concludes with recommendations as to how organizations working towards comprehensive reform can communicate more effectively.

Don’t Stay on Message: Experimental Survey on Immigration Messaging (2013)

This is the full report of a large-scale experimental survey of 8000 Americans, which weighs the effects of pro-immigration values on immigration attitudes and policies by testing how values affect support and how pro-immigration messages fare when confronted with an anti-immigration message.

Don’t Stay on Message: Executive Summary of an Experimental Survey on Immigration Messaging (2013)

This is the executive summary of an unusually large-scale experimental survey of 8000 Americans which weighs the effects of pro-immigration values on immigration attitudes and policies by testing how values affect support and how pro-immigration messages fare when confronted with an anti-immigration message.

Valuing Immigration: How Frame Elements Contribute to Effective Communications (2010)

Findings from several survey experiments with registered voters demonstrate that immigration advocates ought to be very careful in how they sequence issues of race and ethnicity in the conversation about immigration policy reform. We find that communications about policy reforms that remind the public that the primary beneficiaries of reform are likely to be racial or ethnic minorities fail to successfully elevate policy support, while frames that emphasize mutual benefits across groups and interconnectedness prove far more effective in building support for immigration policies. We present empirical evidence from alternative frames that do elevate support for immigration reform and provide examples from our Talking Disparities Toolkit about how advocates can structure more effective frames.