A Rhetorical Discourse Analysis of Presidential Immigration Speech
By: Henry Giwa
“I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”George Washington, Letter to Reverend Francis Adrian Vanderk, New York, May 28, 1788.
Presidential Rhetoric and the Politics of Immigration
Has the rhetoric on immigration changed? I explored presidential parties platforms to see how each president discussed their policy positions on immigration. I examined speeches from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama focusing on their immigration rhetoric. Their presidential preference provide a baseline for the tone and content one could expect presidents to have on immigration rhetoric. I have found that presidential rhetoric on salient issues such as immigration have drastically change highlighting the symbolic role that the president of the United States has constantly played. It’s significant because their rhetoric reaches the American public and influences the political landscape. It reveals the drastic differences in which presidents speak about immigration and this leads to a greater understanding of how rhetoric contributes to public sentiment and interpretation of legislative action.
Prior Knowledge of Immigration Rhetoric
Damien Arthur and Joshua Woods’s analysis of presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barrack Obama in their paper “The Contextual Presidency: The Negative Shift in Presidential Immigration Rhetoric” reveals that there are negative frames in 50% of immigration speeches. They also found that each speech on immigration rhetoric is more negative when certain social conditions are presented (Arthur 468).
Vanessa B. Beasley published a book in 2006 called, “Who Belongs in America?: Presidents, Rhetoric, and Immigration” which acknowledges immigration history and presidential discourse. She notes a paradox that leading politicians and influential leaders have which is embracing “images of immigrants as pioneers and noble strivers, and yet they have also displayed intense xenophobia and hostility to many different kinds of newcomers” (Beasley, 2006). As Beasley describes it, “To explore this question via case studies, the authors in this volume have examined select moments in U.S. immigration history by paying special attention to the interplay between immigration history and presidential discourse, broadly conceived” (Beasley, 2006). Rather, the author makes it clear that there is a relationship between presidential rhetoric and the political, social, rhetorical, and economic circumstances that have driven the American people’s simultaneous need for and fear of immigrants.
Brandon Rottinghaus’s analysis of the presidential rhetoric and public opinion acknowledges developing a direct measure of presidential congruency between public opinion and public presidential rhetoric on policy in his paper “Rethinking Presidential Responsiveness: The Public Presidency and Rhetorical Congruency, 1953–2001” from 2006. This papers looks at presidents internally navigating public opinion across their terms and an analysis of the changes in congruency over time. Rottinghaus acknowledges that public presidential policy rhetoric is highly congruent with public opinion. There is a link between public preferences and presidential rhetoric that are dictated by political circumstances, that further demonstrates the conditional political nature of public representation.
Figure 1 Speeches: Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Five Hundredth Press Conference (Excerpts) Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Roosevelt, F. D. (1938, November 15). November, 1938 – FDR: Day by Day. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Message to Congress on Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Laws. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Executive Order 8029—DOCUMENTS REQUIRED OF ALIENS ENTERING THE UNITED STATES Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Barack Obama, Remarks by the President in Address to the Nation on Immigration. Retrieved November 08, 2020,Barack Obama, Remarks at the 2008 National Council of La Raza Annual Meeting in San Diego, California Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Barack Obama, Remarks at the 79th Annual League of United Latin American Citizens Convention in Washington, DC Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Barack Obama, Proclamation 8693—Suspension of Entry of Aliens Subject to United Nations Security Council Travel Bans and International Emergency Economic Powers Act Sanctions Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project,Barack Obama, Obama Statement on the May 1 Immigration Marches Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project
Figure 2 Speeches: Ronald Reagan, Statement on United States Immigration and Refugee Policy Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Richard Nixon, Proclamation 3930—National Hispanic Heritage Week, 1969 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Ronald Reagan, Executive Order 12324—Interdiction of Illegal Aliens Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Spotts, J. D. “U.s. Immigration Policy on the Southwest Border from Reagan through Clinton, 1981-2001.” Georgetown Immigration Law Journal 16 (2002): 601–18, Bush, G. W. (2006, March 27). Fact Sheet: Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Securing Our Border, Enforcing Our Laws, and Upholding Our Values. Retrieved November 08, 2020, from, George W. Bush, Fact Sheet: Fair and Secure Immigration Reform Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, George W. Bush, Address to the Nation on the Terrorist Attacks Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, George W. Bush, Statement of Administration Policy: H.R. 2975 – Provide Appropriate Tools Required To Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project
- Throughout the speeches there has been an emphasis on language such as the “nation of immigrants”, in which diversity is promoted and considered to be the foundation of the U.S. “melting pot”. This has been used to counteract statements of restrictionist attitudes for the past three decades. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush employed ambiguous, uncertain, and abstract language to prohibit immigration reform. This made it difficult for immigrants in the United States to function productively and lead to President Obama and FDR consistent persuasive immigration rhetoric to contribute to his immigration discourses. Throughout the speeches, there have been a consistent appeal to promoting American values referring to the “melting pot,” and understanding of the immigrant experience shaping the narrow discourses with are prohibiting true immigration system reform.
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