A media and communications strategy is crucial to supporting advocacy, mobilizing supporters and the public, and motivating policymakers about the issues that matter to their constituents. Media coverage often brings visibility to the need for and impact of universal representation and increases public pressure for a program. At the same time, campaigns should be prepared for negative media coverage by developing talking points and a rapid response plan. When done effectively, communications and media advocacy help illustrate why it makes sense—as both a matter of policy and a reflection of the community’s values—for jurisdictions to invest taxpayer dollars in universal deportation defense. An effective communications strategy will be in sync with—and a major component of—the overall advocacy strategy and timeline, including the development of communications materials and engagement with media professionals to influence lawmakers and target messaging in response to particular interests and concerns.

Tailor the campaign’s communication strategies to local circumstances.

As with legislative and budget strategies, it is important for coalition members to know how messaging will resonate within local jurisdictions and to prepare accordingly. Although some communication strategies have a proven track record of success across a variety of circumstances, others vary in their effectiveness depending on context. In addition to baseline messaging with broad appeal, be ready with targeted messaging for specific audiences. For example, the persuasiveness of some messages can depend heavily on a jurisdiction’s political leaning and local demographics—a message that generates support among progressives may prove wholly ineffective among conservatives, and vice versa. Many campaigns also take place in a busy news environment where multiple stories are competing for attention, so employing a range of strategies will help draw focus to the issues at hand.

Campaigns must be responsive to local dynamics and nimble in their communications approach. And though the messaging strategies presented in this toolkit are those demonstrated through research to have broad bipartisan appeal, the most effective campaigns should adapt their messaging based on local context and the community’s needs and interests.For example, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in New York State, messaging about continued funding for NYIFUP and other immigrant legal services stressed that the need for representation was even more urgent in light of the dire public health risks for those who cannot socially distance in detention. See Vera Institute of Justice, “Amid COVID-19 Crisis, Vera Institute of Justice & Coalition for Immigrant Defense Appeal for Protections in State Budget for New York’s Most Vulnerable Immigrants,” press release (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, March 31, 2020), https://perma.cc/93E6-ZDUL.

Rely on messaging that reflects shared values.

Values-based messaging is particularly effective when articulating the importance of universal representation. The results of Vera’s public opinion polling on access to lawyers for immigrants underscores this point.To see the results of public opinion polling in select jurisdictions, visit https://www.vera.org/publications/taking-the-pulse. At the core of the universal representation model is a belief that everyone is entitled to due process and to be treated fairly, justly, and with dignity under the law. The same values are long-standing American principles, even though the country has often failed to achieve these ideals. Campaign messaging should lead with and reflect these values, explaining how universal representation brings us closer to that vision and protects against violating these ideals.The Opportunity Agenda, “Tips for Talking Due Process & Immigration,” 2018, https://perma.cc/7TYL-9TDJ. Whenever possible, use evidence to demonstrate how heavily the scales of justice are tipped against unrepresented people in immigration court—particularly when they are detained—and the dramatic difference it makes when lawyers are involved. (For more details on using evidence in this way, see “Creating a data-driven campaign.”)

By putting universal representation in the context of the shared values of due process and fundamental fairness, advocates help the public and policymakers understand how issues core to the country’s democracy are at stake. Universal representation—and the broad support behind it—allows campaigns to start shifting the conversation about immigrants and immigration to fairness, justice, and investing in solutions that center people who are most affected. Campaigns can draw on data and other evidence to highlight the myriad ways that universal representation programs build collective strength, shared prosperity, family and community unity, and interconnectedness, countering the divisiveness that tends to characterize national political rhetoric about immigration.See The Opportunity Agenda, “Rise Above: Countering Fear-Based Messaging,” 2017, https://perma.cc/E5DT-7PGD; and “Creating a data-driven campaign” for examples of how to convey these benefits of universal representation programs. Framing universal representation as a widely supported and commonsense solution based on shared values may break through the federal government’s polarizing messages about immigration. It also enables the public to see how such programs can help communities thrive.For an example of how a campaign can highlight universal representation as a solution with broad support, see Vera Institute of Justice, “Vera Institute of Justice Shares New Polling Data Finding Overwhelming Support Among New Yorkers for Immigration Legal Services Funding,” press release (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, March 3, 2020), https://perma.cc/69JG-YKVN.

Prepare to address difficult topics.

Campaigns must be capable of both actively promoting the advantages of universal representation and anticipating potential opposition. When determining how and whether to respond to conflicting viewpoints, advocates should consider their audience. In any campaign, many members of the public can be persuaded to lend their support if presented with compelling evidence and messaging; others may be unrelentingly opposed. Communication strategies should primarily focus on generating support among audiences whose opinion can be changed, and campaigns should be prepared to respond to arguments that perpetuate stereotypes of immigrant criminality and are based on harmful myths.See The Opportunity Agenda, Vision, Values, and Voice: A Communications Toolkit (New York: The Opportunity Agenda, 2019), https://perma.cc/EA3Z-CB7V.

To stay on message, campaigns should develop talking points designed to counter negative coverage and opposing views that may arise without reinforcing them. Such talking points should underscore that universal representation upholds the shared values of due process and fairness, which benefit the broader community, and focus on the real human consequences of detention and deportation, particularly without access to counsel. It is important to state facts rather than repeating others’ inaccuracies. For example, research shows that “myth busting”—the practice of presenting a false claim with the purpose of explaining its inaccuracy—may serve to reinforce misconceptions rather than dismantle them.The Opportunity Agenda, “The Myth About Myth Busting,” May 3, 2011, https://perma.cc/7RUH-PNNJ. Instead, experts recommend leading with affirmative messages from the start (such as “Immigrants promote public safety”) instead of restating the myth or raising doubts (“Do immigrants cause crime?”) only to subsequently explain why a claim is false.

Reinforce the natural synergies among supporters of universal representation and other immigrant justice and social justice movements.

Critics may frame their opposition to universal representation by portraying it as being at odds with other important under-resourced programs, policies, and systems, such as education, criminal justice reform, or other pro-immigrant efforts. Use these opportunities to explain how these seemingly disparate issues are interconnected. Share evidence, for example, that illustrates how representation could offset the negative consequences experienced by the millions of school-age children with parents at risk of potential detention or deportation.Research shows that children experience trauma, diminished academic performance, and other negative consequences as the result of parental detention or deportation. See Kalina Brabeck and Qingwen Xu, “The Impact of Detention and Deportation on Latino Immigrant Children and Families: A Quantitative Exploration,” Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 32, no. 3 (2010), 341-361, https://perma.cc/TL28-ZNVA. Also see Migration Policy Institute, “United States: Demographics & Social,” www.migrationpolicy.org/data/state-profiles/state/demographics/US#top. Draw parallels between the immigration and criminal legal systems, stressing that the immigration detention system is an extension of mass incarceration and the criminalization of communities of color in the United States.Morgan-Trostle, Zheng, and Lipscombe, The State of Black Immigrants Part II, 2016, 24-26.

When appropriate, the campaign’s communication strategy should demonstrate how genuine universal representation—a program without exclusions—is a natural extension of the fight for racial justice and criminal justice reform. The campaign might also link universal representation with racial justice movements by describing how immigration law has historically and intentionally been used to rid the United States of immigrants of color who were seen as undesirable and unwelcome members of the country’s social fabric.Alina Das, “Inclusive Immigrant Justice: Racial Animus and the Origins of Crime-Based Deportation,” UC Davis Law Review, 52, no. 1 (2018), 171-195, https://perma.cc/73WM-ZYSU.

Keep the focus on people who are directly impacted.

As mentioned earlier, campaigns should center the voices of those who would be most affected by universal representation programs.American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, American Friends Service Committee, Make the Road New Jersey, and Seton Hall Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic, The Meaning of Counsel in the Immigration System: New Jersey Case Stories (Newark, NJ; Philadelphia; Elizabeth, NJ; and South Orange, NJ: American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, American Friends Service Committee, Make the Road New Jersey, and Seton Hall Law School Immigrant Rights Clinic, 2018), https://perma.cc/8MMU-4FJF. Individuals and family members who have experienced detention and immigration court should be involved as the initiative’s ambassadors and strategic partners. They should also be consulted in the crafting and delivery of messages throughout a campaign—beyond the initial push for pilot funding. Their stories have a powerful impact and matter to the policymakers whose opinions campaigns are trying to influence. At the same time, it is important for these community members to be informed of any potential risks to their safety or that of their loved ones if they speak out, and campaigns should prepare a support system and contingency plan in case of retaliation from authorities.

The following tactics require time and resources, but are well worth the investment.

  • Identify clients and community members who can be spokespeople. There is no better way to understand the human impact of detention and the benefits of representation than to hear it from those who have been most directly affected. Reporters will always want to speak with people about what legal representation meant to them personally. Campaigns should consider partnering with clients and former clients who are interested in participating in advocacy efforts and may be willing to support the program publicly. Clients who have pending immigration cases should consult with their attorneys before interacting with media professionals; attorneys can advise people of any potential risks that may come with sharing their stories publicly.
  • Provide media training to prepare spokespeople for media opportunities and strategize about how to answer difficult questions. Before interviews or any kind of engagement with the press, support spokespeople by briefing them on the context of the interview and accompanying them if necessary or desired.
  • Connect individual stories to systemic problems and solutions to keep the focus on the root causes of the issue and the long-term vision of universal representation.See for example stories of community members and family members represented by the SAFE Network, which advances a universal representation model. Vera Institute of Justice, “The Human Impact of Universal Representation,” www.vera.org/the-human-impact-of-universal-representation. Clients and former clients are often well positioned to do this, as they have experienced the intersection of the criminal legal and immigration systems.
  • Explore ways for affected people to tell their stories on their own terms. Whenever possible, campaigns should consider providing resources that allow community members to share their own stories through written or visual media (such as personal essays, artwork, or video). By putting the power of content creation in the hands of those who are most directly impacted, community members gain agency and depend less on how others may tell their stories.

Develop relationships with local media professionals and keep them engaged.

Favorable national media attention on universal representation can help build momentum for campaigns, but local reporters are more likely to provide coverage and help the campaign thrive. Local media outlets provide direct avenues to influence community members, key decision makers, and elected officials in the jurisdiction where the campaign is underway.

From the onset of a campaign, identify which coalition members have media contacts and the capacity to engage in communications outreach. Develop relationships with reporters even before there is specific news to share, building mutual trust by getting to know their interests and offering to show them around immigration court. Tell trusted reporters about upcoming hearings, provide them with an advance on a report, and invest the time to educate them on immigration enforcement, detention, and immigration law. Whenever possible, provide concrete examples through stories and data to describe how people experience immigration enforcement locally. Consider setting up editorial board meetings and organizing press events at strategic moments during the campaign. By taking the time to educate and engage media professionals, advocates can lay the groundwork for the most informed and accurate reporting possible. Campaigns should also try to devote resources toward drafting and placing op-eds by key stakeholders and/or influential voices to promote the messages of the campaign directly. The resulting news coverage is also an opportunity to push elected officials and candidates to take a public position on the issue, something that can be used later as a tactic to help ensure their accountability.

Engage community and ethnic media outlets.

Communications strategies should not be limited to mainstream English-language media organizations. Whenever possible, engage community-based and ethnic media outlets that provide coverage in areas that have large populations locally. Research the outlets and the reporters who are most popular, respected, and credible among communities the campaign is trying to reach. The campaign may also need to establish an explicit strategy for these types of media outreach that includes creating materials in the community’s native language, identifying spokespeople who are fluent in it, and developing plans to hold either bilingual or separate press conferences.

Embrace the value of social media platforms and their multiplier effect.

Social media can be a significant asset for campaigns, serving as another means to actively engage and mobilize the public to support universal representation.

Communication via social media should follow many of the same principles that more traditional media strategies do. In addition, take the following steps.

  • Identify the influencers, validators, and other allies whose social media presence can help bring visibility to the campaign. Although influencers may be high profile, they do not need to be.The Opportunity Agenda, “The Case of the Cultural Influencers: Colin Kaepernick, Jimmy Kimmel, and #MeToo,” 2019, https://perma.cc/Y7AW-9VY5. Anyone with perceived authority or persuasive power over key local decision makers is an influencer. For example, think of the entities previously identified as important coalition members—community members, advocates, organizers, and ally groups—as influencers who may have their own social media presence.
  • Invest the time to plan a social media strategy as early as possible. As with any other element of the campaign, plan ahead. Invest the time well in advance of important moments—such as crucial hearings or the release of an article, op-ed, or advocacy brief—to think through the messaging strategy and build a relationship with influencers, validators, and allies early on, well before asking them to promote the campaign’s messages.
  • Use any and all of the coalition’s social media platforms to lift up the work of others. The strongest relationships are mutually beneficial. Be a good ally to influencers and related campaigns by amplifying their messages. When appropriate, view these as opportunities to reinforce the interconnectedness between universal representation and other issues of importance.

Strategies for communications and media advocacy

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