The best advocates for migrants are migrants

In July 2015, Angela Merkel was speaking a town hall style event on the “Good life in Germany” at a secondary school in the coastal town of Rostock, when:

Reem, a Palestinian, told Merkel in fluent German that she and her family, who arrived in Rostock from a Lebanese refugee camp four years ago, face the threat of deportation.

She said: “I have goals like anyone else. I want to study like them … it’s very unpleasant to see how others can enjoy life, and I can’t myself.”

Dr Merkel is indisputably a very skilled politician. However, in this situation she floundered:

…saying she understood, but that “politics is sometimes hard. You’re right in front of me now and you’re an extremely nice person. But you also know in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon are thousands and thousands and if we were to say you can all come … we just can’t manage it.”

Not unsurprisingly this answer reduced Reem to tears, and Dr Merkel was left stroking the crying girl’s shoulder, whilst lamely reassuring her that she had presented herself ‘extremely well’. As well as being a bad look for the Chancellor, it seemed to affect her personally.  Less than a month later, she made the momentous decision to open Germany’s borders to over a million Syrian refugees.

This incident came to mind as I was reading a column by Simon Kuper in the FT about how cosmopolitans can stop losing the communications battle to populists. Among his suggestions is that we:

Don’t use elite spokespeople. The gay-marriage campaign — a rare liberal persuasive triumph — showcased ordinary couples in love. Likewise, the best spokespeople on migration may be ordinary integrated immigrants. On issues of migration, more Britons would trust a migrant who has been in the UK 15 years than would trust any party leader, reports British Future.

Immigration activists in the US have quite explicitly modeled their approach on the equal marriage movement:

Gay-marriage campaigners have long favoured unthreatening, often grey-haired monogamous gay couples as spokesmen (the “lesbians next door” gambit, as a study of the cause dubbed it). Immigration reformers promoted Dreamers: young campaigners named after the DREAM Act, a proposal to offer fast-track legal status to migrants brought to America as children, as long as they go to college or into the armed forces. Advocates such as Mr Sharry credit the prominence of wholesome, college-bound Dreamers with helping reshape the national debate.

Perhaps for that reason, the Obama administration’s first major action was to protect Dreamers from deportation. Despite the Trump administration’s hostility to immigration, even it was hesitant to rescind these protections and dithered before doing so. That decision proved unpopular even with some generally pro-Trump Republicans and it seems possible/likely that legislation will eventually reinstate those protections.

We have also seen this approach used in the UK. For example, the I am an Immigrant poster campaign:

immigrantposter

Immigration advocates have to wrestle with powerful preconcieved notions. The combination of our inherent prejudices against the unfamiliar and years of conjuring by tabloid bile merchants has created a powerful, emotionally resonant negative image of immigrants. Trying to slay these monsters with a stream of counter-vailing information seems likely to backfire. A better way to show voters the reality of migration is to show them real migrants. As Angela Merkel discovered, it is hard to defend our inhumane migration when face-to-face with an actual decent human being it’s hurting.

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