Marielena Hincapié is the Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center. The question she seeks to answer is: What does it take for immigrants to feel and be seen as Angelenos, Californians and Americans? She wants to change the current narrative about immigrants as “others” or “criminals” to one that sees them as people seeking full, healthy, and dignified lives for themselves and their families.
The Challenge: The political climate we are living in has resulted in a major setback in the overall narrative and public discourse about the role of immigrants in this country resulting in policies that are reshaping who is considered “worthy” of being part of our society. Over the last years, we have witnessed some of the most cruel and inhumane policies resulting in Central American children being ripped apart from their parents’ arms upon their arrival at the border and long-time Los Angeles residents afraid of being detained and deported to immigrant leaders living in legal limbo as a result of the termination of their legal status such as DACA and TPS to Angelenos being afraid to seek the health, nutrition or housing assistance for fear that they will be barred from becoming a permanent resident. While much of the anti-immigrant narrative at the federal level is about undocumented immigrants the fact is that the policy changes are aimed at radically reshaping our legal immigration system, slowing down the demographic shifts and disenfranchising future voters of color, and redefining what it means to be an American.
The Hunch: The current narrative results in immigrants not feeling welcomed and feeling that they don’t belong in their new adopted home, even in a progressive city like Los Angeles. My hunch was that if we develop a narrative that is grounded in a racial and economic justice vision for an inclusive and equitable society and that centers immigrants as people who have the same dreams and want the same things (e.g., to live a life with dignity; lead healthy lives in which they can thrive and fulfill their full potential; have freedom and equality, etc.) as everyone else does, we could change hearts and minds that create the political conditions for transformative change in society.
The Proposal: As an immigrant justice advocate who has focused primarily on litigation, policy, and strategic communications as the key strategies to achieve social change, I wanted to start by learning about how narrative is created and shaped, understand the neurological and psychological research on how people’s attitudes and behaviors change, etc. I set out to learn from other social movements (e.g., LGBT and marriage equality, death penalty, etc.) and private sector campaigns that have had successes or failures that would be good to learn from. Because the immigration debate in this country is not only about immigrants but about how we define who is worthy of being an American, it is central to our identity as a nation, I first focused on revisiting the founding of this country and the racialized violence against Native Americans and enslaved Africans.
The Stanton Journey: One of the greatest learnings I had during my fellowship was the importance of “diffuse learning” and creating spaciousness in order to let our creative juices flow. This resulted in using my Stanton funds to co-lead the Immigrant Movement Visioning Process – a cohort of 50 immigrant justice leaders who co-developed a vision for the next 20-25 years that is not constrained by today’s political realities, which can now inform the development of a shared narrative. Although the Durfee Foundation highly recommends international travel – and I did benefit from short trips to the former Berlin wall serving as a reminder of what is possible as well as the India-Pakistan border resulting in the painful Partition – my journey surprisingly took me to Hawai’i. As the most diverse state which has never had a white dominant culture, we have a lot to learn from Native Hawaiian leaders, their culture and language, as well as the complex drivers of migration and narrative challenges related to the migrants from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands who are demonized and dehumanized similar to migrants on the continental U.S.
Where I am Now: I am at the beginning of a new journey: one which includes an appreciation for a new way of learning and working, and reconnecting to poetry and the importance of integrating art and culture into our work. Most importantly, we at the National Immigration Law Center have now included narrative and culture change as a new lever of change which we are leveraging along with our legal and policy expertise and movement building. I am excited about this path I am now on and look forward to helping shape the narrative for a more inclusive and equitable society in which we can all belong.