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How to Define American? Reshaping America’s immigration narrative 

Over the past several years, stories about immigrants that are based in nativism and fear have increasingly dominated mainstream news media coverage. A recent  study by Define American and the MIT Media Lab showed an alarming increase in newsrooms’ use of denigrating or fear-inducing terms and tropes (e.g. “immigrant invasion“, “chain migration”) as well as an increase in the citation of known anti-immigrant hate groups, without acknowledging the radical history of these groups and their views. 

Additionally, a two-year study of 47 different television series by Define American and the Norman Lear Center at USC showed that representations of immigrants in entertainment media are also quite warped. For example, while immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, the study found that over 30% of immigrant characters in television were associated with a crime, and although less than 1% of immigrants are incarcerated, almost 11% of immigrant characters were associated with incarceration. Additionally, while nearly half of American immigrants are US citizens, less than 25% of foreign-born characters are depicted as citizens. This inaccurate portrayal of immigrants helps to reinforce inaccurate stereotypes and narratives about immigrants in the United States, and this in turn lays the groundwork for harmful policies and behaviors towards immigrant community members.

Relying on the backdrop of these false narratives, the current administration has pushed for policies that jeopardize the rights of millions of immigrants, including attempts to end DACA and illegally refusing to allow asylum seekers to enter the country. Many immigrant rights groups, like Luminate grantee United We Dream, are responding to these attacks by providing resources to affected communities and through bold advocacy campaigns, including to protect DACA. Other organizations, like Luminate grantee American Immigration Council are providing pro bono legal services to ensure asylum seekers in remote detention facilities are able to access due process under the law. However, as narratives that activate feelings of scarcity, fear, and xenophobia become normalized in our news and popular culture, harmful policies have also gained popularity, and advocating for humane, rational reforms to immigration policy in the United States has become increasingly difficult. 

Without broad changes in the ways that the news and entertainment media in the US portray immigrants, policy advocacy for more humane immigration policies remains an uphill battle.

It is in this context that Luminate is pleased to announce a $400,000 grant to Define American, a narrative and culture organization that uses media and the power of story to transcend politics and shift the conversation about immigrants, identity, and citizenship in a changing America. Named one of Fast Company’s most innovative companies of 2019 in the Film and Television category, Define American works through entertainment and news media to humanize the conversation on immigration through storytelling. Define American conducts groundbreaking research, including the reports referenced above, that highlight problems with the media’s portrayal of immigrants, and the organization advocates for improvements through a combination of media consulting and local, chapter-led cultural advocacy efforts throughout the United States. 

Within its media consulting work, Define American has partnered with writers on more than 45 film and television projects. These include widely watched network shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Superstore on ABC and NBC, and with streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu. The organization also regularly updates its media guide for how to authentically and accurately portray immigrant stories.

Within its local chapter-organizing efforts, Define American provides tools to organize student-led chapter affiliates at universities throughout the United States. These chapters help people share personal stories, engage in meaningful conversations about immigration and what it means to be American, and organize advocacy campaigns.

Luminate believes that recognizing all people for their humanity, regardless of where they are born, is a fundamental ingredient of a healthy society. While our individual policy preferences may differ, we can engage in more informed and healthy civic dialogue when our news media and entertainment more accurately reflect reality, rather than a distorted picture that breeds fear of newcomers. Define American’s work supports a vision in which all people, including immigrants, have the opportunity to reach their greatest potential, engage with their community, and fully contribute their talents — expanding prosperity and well-being for all Americans. Define American’s innovative research, work with media, advocacy campaigns, and local chapter organizing provides us hope that this vision can be realized.