Beyond the Clash: How a Deliberative Public Talks about Immigration - A Report on 2018 National Issues Forums on Immigration

Keith Melville
Melinda Gilmore

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Over the course of 2018, an array of organizations, under the auspices of the National Issues Forums Institute, convened 86 nonpartisan public conversations in 28 states across the country about one of the nation’s pressing issues: immigration. Using the issue guide Coming to America: Who Should We Welcome, What Should We Do?, forum participants considered three options—welcome immigrants and be a beacon of freedom; enforce the law and be fair to those who follow the rules; or slow down and rebuild our common bonds—along with concrete actions that they would suggest and, importantly, the trade-offs and drawbacks of each.

Polls capture views of a divided public that is sharply split along partisan lines, but deliberative forums capture the views of people who have had the opportunity to consider basic facts, weigh different views, and reflect on some of the complexities of the immigration issue, which involves trade-offs between short- and long-term drawbacks and benefits and requires balancing deeply held ideals and hard realities about short-term costs. In their substance and tone, these deliberative forums were a notable departure from most partisan exchanges. The views participants expressed, with few exceptions, were not those of people who favor sharply restricting immigration, nor were they advocates of an extreme pro-immigration agenda that favors open borders. By and large, forum participants were willing to grapple with trade-offs to try to find a practical and humane response to a complex problem.

This report on the 2018 National Issues Forums on immigration offers a powerful demonstration that typical Americans with differing views can exchange ideas on immigration and that, as they listen to one another, their views become more nuanced and pragmatic. Most important, it shows that people with different starting points can and will find areas of common ground for action on which they would be willing to come together. And time after time, in all kinds of settings, participants leave the forums wishing that their elected officials, too, could begin looking for areas of agreement and hammering out a more lasting solution. For policymakers, these deliberative forums provide a different kind of knowledge that can uniquely outline the bounds of political permission within which they have room to lead.

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Published Date: 
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
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