Participants in immigration discussion tried their best to listen

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Take an ex-trucker who blames illegal immigrants for his inability to find a job. Add in an undocumented immigrant who says that President Barack Obama’s executive order allowing her and other “Dreamers” to stay in the country changed her life. Put them both in a private Facebook group, along with 59 other Californians with strong views on immigration. Then ask them to talk about President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, visa quotas, the Dream Act and other flashpoints of U.S. immigration policy.

What could possibly go wrong?

After a month of back-and-forth, the participants in Talking Across Borders — a private Facebook group created as a media experiment to give people a place to talk respectfully about immigration — are just as divided as ever. But the fact that they were able to have a conversation about immigration that mostly stayed civil shows that there’s still some hope our long-running national debate over immigration will eventually become less acrimonious, some participants of the group say.

“They disagreed wildly over just about everything, but they kept talking,” said Jeremy Hay, co-founder of the Alameda-based nonprofit Spaceship Media, which designed and moderated Talking Across Borders. Media partners for the project are the Bay Area News Group, the Southern California News Group and the Spanish-language TV network Univision.

The online discussion launched on Aug. 8 and ran through Sept. 5. Nearly half of the participants supported increased enforcement of immigration laws, while nearly half opposed tougher enforcement. Only a handful of participants found themselves in the middle.

Participants posted articles they read, debated immigration statistics and shared their own stories. They engaged in 150 discussion threads, which sprouted into thousands of comments and conversations.

But peace was not at hand.

“I don’t think anybody changed their minds,” said Gregory Brittain, 59, a Redlands attorney who believes U.S. immigration laws need to be rigorously enforced.

That doesn’t surprise Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for the Study of Politics and the Media at Cal State Sacramento.

Opinions on immigration, she said, tend to be associated with people’s most deeply held values and can be central to their self-esteem, which makes it extremely hard for people to change their minds on the topic.

“Once you confront somebody whose views are very different from yours and you find commonality on something, then you adjust and you move your own attitude a little bit,” O’Connor said. “But it takes a long time to change someone’s mind.”

Although few attitudes changed during the monthlong discussion, vigorous debate erupted over everything from H1B work visas to Trump’s travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries to whether Americans who want to crack down on undocumented immigrants are racists.

“The goal is not to change minds,” Spaceship Media co-founder Eve Pearlman said of the project. “The goal is to support people in listening to and thinking about other people’s views and perspectives and to do so in a way that avoids the hostility, name-calling and meanness that tends to dominate in online forums.”

Some of the most intriguing moments came when Talking Across Borders participants turned abstract immigration policy personal.

Gabriela Cruz, a 29-year-old beneficiary of the 5-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program who was brought to the U.S. by her mother from Mexico at age 1, said she enjoyed the opportunity to share her story. Before joining the Facebook group, Cruz said, she had only rarely been publicly open about the fact that she’s undocumented.

Now, after Trump’s recent decision to rescind DACA and call upon Congress to come up with a permanent solution to the “Dreamer” issue, Cruz wants to be more active about speaking out. “Given what we’re living in the past week, I don’t feel like I have much of an option,” the Santa Cruz resident said. “I have to fight for my right to be here.”

Robert De-Noyer, a 59-year-old former trucker from Los Gatos who believes he can’t find a contracting job because there are so many illegal immigrants in the construction trades, said: “We all believe in what we’re talking about because of our personal backgrounds.”

Other Talking Across Borders participants, however, said they felt their own experiences were left out of the conversation. Mayra Azanza, a 40-year-old entrepreneur who lives in Culver City, came to the U.S. from Mexico on a spousal visa 13 years ago. Her husband got an H1B work visa for his job, but her visa didn’t allow her to work, taking a toll on her marriage and leaving her feeling “trapped in the system.”

But when she shared her story, Azanza, who’s now a U.S. citizen, found the group relatively uninterested. The discussion focused instead on hotter-button topics like illegal immigration. “It’s frustrating,” she said. “This is part of the immigration universe that is ignored.”

Overall, though, Azanza said she was pleasantly surprised how courteous the discussion stayed. “After a while, you kind of know each other, so you cannot be openly disrespectful to somebody,” she said. “You can disagree with somebody, but once you know a person and know their personal story, you humanize the situation.”

Not everyone was civil. The moderators of the forum blocked four participants of the group for overly aggressive posts, Hay said, later letting one person back in.

That participant — Jerald Butts, 47, of Anaheim — was banned for a week after he got into a belligerent, increasingly personal exchange with another participant. Butts, however, said he didn’t mind the timeout. The format of the discussion “forced a civil engagement,” he said. “And I enjoyed it.”

Some of those who support tougher immigration enforcement said they thought much of the debate was too touchy-feely. “There was no recognition on the other side of the effect of illegal immigration on Americans,” Brittain said. And Butts said participants focused too much on “feelings” instead of “facts.”

Members of the group quickly realized, however, that one person’s facts are often another’s propaganda. Some of the biggest divides between the debaters were over which sources were reputable and which statistics could be trusted.

Most participants “were just trying to shoot each other’s sources down,” said De-Noyer. “It was like, oh, that came from Breitbart, that came from Fox News, that came from NBC … so I can’t believe that story.”

Sometimes it felt like people on different sides of the immigration divide were barely speaking the same language, De-Noyer said, and debates erupted over the use of words like “undocumented” and “illegal.”

“When you can’t agree on the facts, then it becomes hard to discuss anything,” Brittain added. “They have their sources, our side has our sources, and never the twain shall meet.”

Up and down California, the participants fired off missives at all hours of the day. Azanza usually sat down at her laptop and posted while enjoying her morning cup of coffee, sometimes working on posts for days to refine her opinions before sharing them on the group. De-Noyer would “wake up and jump on my computer” to get into the debate.

“It was a fricking addiction,” said Larry Buhay, a tech manager from Santa Clara who supports stricter enforcement of immigration laws. He said he couldn’t resist responding when notifications about new posts in the group lit up his cell phone.

As Congress starts to debate the Dream Act, Trump’s request for border-wall funding and potentially a broader immigration reform package, could our national politicians learn anything from the discussion?

“We should throw them in a closed Facebook group and see what happens,” Spaceship Media’s Hay joked.

Cruz, the DACA recipient, doesn’t believe Congress should get off that easily.

Said Cruz: “I don’t think that they should have the option to leave like we did — to step away from our computer — until there (is) a solution.”

Alejandra Molina, a reporter for the Southern California Newspaper Group, contributed to this report.


ABOUT THE PROJECT

The Talking Across Borders online conversation generated more than 150 posts and several thousand comments in a private Facebook group from Aug. 8 to Sept. 5. The project’s media partners included the Southern California Newspaper Group, the Bay Area Newspaper Group and Univision. It was designed and managed by Spaceship Media, an Alameda-based news venture that believes journalism and civil conversation can bridge political divides and decrease polarization.

More than 60 people from around the state took part in the conversation, and nearly all made it to the end, with a core group of about 25 engaging in nearly daily discussions about topics ranging from legal immigration quotas to President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.

There were few rules, but memes, name-calling and abusive language were not allowed. Spaceship Media co-founders Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay, both veteran journalists, moderated the 24-7 conversation.

“People are so polarized these days and so eager to dismiss the person on the other side of the issue,” said Tom Bray, managing editor/news for the Southern California Newspaper Group. “I was impressed that most of the participants in this project made genuine attempts to try to understand why another participant felt the way they did. That didn’t mean that they swayed one another, but they tried their best to listen. And listening matters.”


 



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