Seeing and Speaking 360 Degrees on Immigration

GSPM student Kara Dunford co-authored this piece

Earlier this week I shared one approach to tackling immigration reform devised by students at the Graduate School of Political Management. In the interest of being bipartisan, here is a presentation from that our students developed from the Republican perspective.

They worked to create a plausible and budget-positive immigration proposal, against the backdrop of a deeper understanding of what it means to approach politics with a 360-degree vision. By seeing and speaking 360°, political leaders can effectively build coalitions and overcome policy gridlock through political savvy. The best political leaders unify highly segmented societies thanks to their ability to see, understand, and reconcile opposing perspectives.

As each team presented its immigration proposals, which ranged from strengthening e-verify requirements to increasing border security, a second lesson became apparent: It is not enough to see 360°. Political leaders must speak 360° as well.

Speaking 360° is a balancing act. Speeches must avoid phrases that would be perceived as "nails on a chalkboard" by the other side, as well as phrases that would steal the narrative, while also offering enough substantive arguments to be convincing.

This group chose Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., as the leader it wished to submit its proposal. Flake was a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight working group that developed the Senate-passed immigration bill. His work on that measure showed that he has the ability to see and speak 360° on this issue. He is also a former House member, so his relationships in that chamber may help when presenting the measure to fellow Republicans.

They proposed that he should seek to divide the overall reform goal into bills that dealt with the following areas: border security, strengthening the legal immigration system in a way that encourages economic growth, a temporary worker program to provide future labor needs, strengthened employment verification standards to prevent the hiring of illegal immigrants, and a process for the 11 million undocumented immigrants to achieve legal status through a series of stringent requirements and a considerable timeframe. As part of the approach, the path to legal status could not go into effect until the border security provisions were met.

That pathway was a key component in selling the plan to the House GOP. Rather than establishing a path to citizenship, they proposed a path to legal status. When considering how to speak 360°, students knew Republicans would almost certainly balk at the term "path to citizenship." A path to legal status would provide a next step for the undocumented immigrants in a way that doesn't resort to deportation, which would not sit well with Democrats, while also avoiding becoming a "nail on the chalkboard" for Republicans. The pathway had strict requirements and a long timeline. This would reassure members that there would be a rigorous process to ensure that those who broke the law wouldn't remain in the country without paying a price and following the rules.

Border security is a legitimate key concern of the House Republican conference. To address this, and bolster the odds for success, their proposed plan for Sen. Flake placed a priority on securing the border with Mexico. His experience representing a border state should boost his authenticity on the issue.

Beyond their proposal for Sen. Flake, the team needed to assemble a coalition to advocate for the plan. It involved working with immigration reform supporters from both sides of the aisle, such as the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce. Each group would be able to show skeptical Democrats and Republicans how immigration reform could boost the economy. To help build a compelling personal narrative, they suggested that Flake should work with so-called DREAMers, children brought here illegally who have only known the United States as their homeland, to explain why they want to come out of the shadows and fully participate in American society.

A successful immigration sales pitch would guide the audience along a timeline of the issue. The narrative would provide an anchor in the past, detailing the history of the issue and build toward the current environment. After fleshing out the present, the narrative offered direction, showing where the new system would benefit the United States and detailing all of the ways in which this future would be better than the status quo.

Seeing and speaking 360° is certainly not an easy task. It requires boundless ingenuity and a willingness to step outside of one's comfort zone in order to connect to individuals possessing a vast assortment of opinions.

Ultimately, it will not be policy that emerges as the hero of immigration reform, but rather politicians who approach the issue with a willingness to adapt their ideas and messages to work towards consensus.

It is said that doing nothing can often be the worst alternative. On immigration, rather than holding fast to political gridlock, Congress would do well to embrace the lessons found in seeing and speaking 360°. By approaching the issue with an ear and eye on both sides of the argument, solutions will become possible.

Hon. Mark R. Kennedy (@HonMarkKennedy) leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is Chairman of the Economic Club of Minnesota. He previously served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and was Senior Vice President and Treasurer of Federated Department Stores (now Macy's).

Kara Dunford is a Graduate School of Political Management student and a research assistant in George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.