Change is Hard: Managing Fear and Anxiety about Demographic Change and Immigration in Polarized Time

Some good ideas to help people adapt to change, particularly relevant during these surreal times:

What does the research suggest we should do?

  • Protect democracy first. Immigration is being used as the perfect wedge to divide Americans and weaken our pluralistic democracy. This creates a responsibility for its proponents to acknowledge that how we advance immigrant justice has an impact on how opponents of democratic pluralism and supporters of authoritarianism conduct their assault on democracy.

  • Learn from history. America has seen this movie before, a century ago. We should devise solutions to the current stress caused by decades of immigration and rapid demographic change by modeling what good change management looks like and leading our communities and our nation through this difficult period of adjustment with honesty, nuance, respect and empathy.

  • Focus on narrative and culture change strategies. Since the immigration debate is about culture and identity, we must engage in culture change work to promote norms, values and behaviors that affirm shared ideals of freedom and opportunity, as well as human dignity. We must also adaptthe narrative to affirm unity and interdependence, create space for complexity, and connect immigration to broader aspirations about how to uplift all Americans.

  • Use framing to inoculate rather than alienate. Immigration proponents may use narrative frames that unwittingly pit Americans against immigrants, thus alienating them. It’s best to avoid deifying immigrants as better than Americans (immigrant exceptionalism), focusing too narrowly on immigrants rather than on shared identities or shared values (making it about them rather than us), elevating the value of diversity as an inherent good (promoting the notion that we are more different than the same), and making people who are immigrant agnostic or skeptical feel judged, irrelevant or ignored. It’s preferable to use approaches that inoculate long-term residents against fear-based narratives.

  • Work side by side to build a more just America. Efforts to build bridges and bonds must exist alongside and support longstanding efforts to build power for marginalized people and eliminate structures of oppression, including racism and inequality. These efforts need to actually shift the views and systems that uphold racism and othering.

  • Strengthen capacities to build bridges and promote social cohesion, community by community. New funding streams need to support social cohesion all around the country at this critical time. In particular, organizations dedicated to bridging and dialogue work need to be funded and scaled, related efforts need to be expanded in social change and service organizations to influence their organizational culture and impact more broadly, and corporations and government need to recognize that this type of work merits significant engagement and investment.

  • Grow the base of support. Supporters of immigration cannot win by staying on one pole of the ideological debate and relying on a small, activated base of supporters. They must compete for some meaningful segment of white Americans and immigrant skeptics, and fight the gravitational pull of white nationalism, which is targeting this population. There are no shortcuts around the hard work of listening to the public at neither pole.

  • Build relationships across difference. Research shows that meaningful contact between long-term residents and newcomers improves the former’s perceptions of immigrants or of people they consider “other” and that deliberative dialogue and deep listening are effective in changing opinions. Contact and dialogue work, along with robust multi-stakeholder civic and community engagement, are the foundations of strong, cohesive and resilient communities.

  • Invest in vulnerable places. Rural areas, exurbs and suburbs that are more homogeneous are more prone to react with discomfort to demographic change, such as recent immigrant or refugee arrivals. This makes them more likely to feel the lure of xenophobia and white nationalism. It is precisely in these places that proactive investment and intervention are needed to address the anxiety about demographic change and immigration and push for the adoption of welcoming initiatives.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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