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Ava Ayers, Missing Immigrants in the Rhetoric of Sanctuary, 2021 Wis. L. Rev. 473 (2021), available at SSRN.

Ava Ayers asks us to think about a hypothetical policy that says, “We must protect our children from violent crime because children are key drivers of economic well-being.” Professor Ayers aptly describes this language as “creepy.” Why, then, do politicians often discuss immigration by emphasizing what migrants can do for us, rather than in terms that recognize the agency, rights, and intrinsic value of individual migrants? While the effects of immigration are a legitimate concern, the rhetoric of politicians often leans on a transactional approach to immigration, rather than one based on moral grounds. While the reluctance to highlight what is best for migrants may be understandable given political calculations, Professor Ayers pushes us to think about what is lost by ignoring opportunities to say that undocumented individuals matter, that they are a part of the community, and that they are worthy of the concern of public leaders. Professor Ayers’ approach focuses on the way that policy reflects “attitudes about the value of human beings.” The law is about more than just consequences.

In Missing Immigrants in the Rhetoric of Sanctuary, Professor Ayers examines the rhetoric used by local and state policymakers when crafting sanctuary policies. While “sanctuary” has no strict definition, it generally refers to policies that resist immigration enforcement or policies that withhold state and local cooperation with immigration enforcement. Some sanctuary policies involve active resistance, while others are more passive. All sanctuary policies are meant to protect individual noncitizens. But, as Professor Ayers has found, the justifications for sanctuary policies are at times expressed in language that emphasizes what sanctuary policies can achieve for those who are not at risk of deportation. In other words, policymakers, at times, do not make those who will benefit from a sanctuary policy the center of their rhetoric.

The rhetoric surrounding sanctuary policies is especially worthy of examination because these policies represent strong objections to federal enforcement of immigration law. As Professor Ayers observes, if policymakers in favor of sanctuary policies shy away from openly discussing the interests of noncitizens, who will? Professor Ayers is focused not on the end result- the sanctuary policy- but the rhetoric used to get there. While focusing on the benefits to voters may seem like a pragmatic approach, Professor Ayers argues that politicians should embrace their influence to help change the moral norms surrounding migration.

Professor Ayers shows us examples of rhetoric where arguments about public safety, economic well-being, and family unity are not focused on the needs or rights of the migrants themselves, but rather what sanctuary policies can do for us. The “us” signifies a division in the community and that those who directly benefit from sanctuary policies are somehow either not a part of the community or are not full members. Many individuals seeking sanctuary have lived in the United States for years and live in mixed-status families. Professor Ayers’ article raises important questions about whose well-being counts and who is included in community identity

Professor Ayers recognizes a danger of ignoring moral standing and by defining undocumented individuals as “other.” By focusing on transactional value, policies “tend to instrumentalize undocumented people.” Undocumented individuals are more than a means to an end. Also, “if a certain group of people is routinely treated as instrumental, and never treated as an end in themselves, then that group has been dehumanized.” Instrumentalization risks “reinforcing the idea that undocumented people’s interests do not deserve to be considered by policymakers or by anyone else.”

It is not clear whether policymakers use the transactional rhetoric because it is their preferred language or whether they use this rhetoric as a part of a political calculation to make sanctuary policies more acceptable to voters. The rhetoric of the policymakers, Professor Ayers argues, can be contrasted with the rhetoric of activists, which focuses on the needs of migrants and considers even undocumented individuals to be community members.

Professor Ayers’ observations about rhetoric in the sanctuary context have significance in other aspects of immigration law as well. Politicians make arguments in favor of legalization programs by emphasizing what those programs can do for us. This rhetoric emphasizes a transactional approach to immigration; an approach that at its core, whether or not intentionally, sends the message that migrants are only worthwhile if they do something for us. Professor Ayers is pushing us to think about why arguments about benefits to the migrants themselves are taboo and to recognize “what is lost through this shying away.”

Thinking about why policymakers do not focus on arguments about benefits to migrants themselves is important because, as Professor Ayers says, “rhetoric shapes norms that determine our society’s willingness to welcome noncitizens and decisions about how we treat them.” It is as if policymakers are restraining themselves, perhaps because of some conventional wisdom about what the American electorate will accept. This restraint is detrimental, according to Professor Ayers.

Professor Ayers acknowledges that some in her study did ignore the conventional wisdom and spoke about how sanctuary policies benefit migrants themselves. Arguments about benefits to the rest of society are not illegitimate, but Professor Ayers’ inquiry shows us that the missing rhetoric is worthy of examination. One aspect of Professor Ayers’ inquiry that could be further developed is her collection of sanctuary policies. Professor Ayers mentions that she reviewed 200 sanctuary policies in her research but does not give us further detail on how many of those policies use inclusive rhetoric versus how many do not.

Nevertheless, Professor Ayers astutely points out that as long as some policymakers are using this rhetoric, we need to stop and think about it. Why would policymakers shy away? How can we change the rhetoric in the hope of recognizing migrants for their intrinsic value? As Professor Ayers argues, changing the rhetoric holds promise for changing the norms that govern our national conversations on immigration.

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Cite as: Jill Family, Why Don’t Policymakers Speak Out About Migrants?, JOTWELL (February 23, 2022) (reviewing Ava Ayers, Missing Immigrants in the Rhetoric of Sanctuary, 2021 Wis. L. Rev. 473 (2021), available at SSRN), https://lex.jotwell.com/why-dont-policymakers-speak-out-about-migrants/.