The Politics of the President’s Immigration Rhetoric

AuthorMatthew Eshbaugh-Soha,Eric Gonzalez Juenke
Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 50(1) 117 –130
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211042283
The president is one of the most important immigration
policymakers in the United States, and immigration policy,
given its clear federal scope, is an area where the presi-
dent’s agenda-setting powers and rhetoric matter. However,
presidency scholars have shown that the president’s agenda-
setting powers are systematically constrained by other
political actors and events (see Edwards & Wood, 1999).
Social scientists have explored at length the factors that
drive immigration politics (Hainmueller & Hopkins, 2014;
Haynes et al., 2016; Sampaio, 2015; Silva 2018) and while
the president’s role is critically important in this process
(Beasley, 2004; Sampaio, 2015; Tichenor, 2002), we do not
fully understand when and why presidents give their lim-
ited attention to immigration over time. If presidents are
particularly powerful when it comes to immigration policy,
when do they decide to use the power of their rhetoric to
attempt to influence the immigration policy agenda?
Moreover, what drives the tone of that rhetoric? We focus
on these two questions in this manuscript.
The two most recent presidencies help illustrate the rele-
vance of these questions. Donald Trump entered office after
a campaign of divisive immigration rhetoric that portrayed
immigrants as a drain on the US economy and an affront to
American values. His rhetoric on immigration, specifically
to “restore integrity and the rule of law at our borders,”1
translated into three executive orders designed to limit asy-
lum and construct a 2,000 mile border wall,2 punish so-called
“sanctuary cities” and erode cooperation between local
officials and immigrants,3 and ban travel from several
Muslim-majority nations.4 President Barack Obama also
prioritized immigration policy during his tenure and, like
Trump, promised to secure the border and increase deporta-
tions. In contrast, he intended to liberalize US immigration
policy by prioritizing comprehensive immigration reform,
that is, the DREAM Act, in his second term. He also struck a
much different tone than his successor, maintaining that
“Our history and the facts show that immigrants are a net
plus for our economy and our society.”5
Both of these examples show how two recent presidents
have prioritized immigration policy, while disagreeing on
how to implement reform and how to talk about immigration
in American politics and society. They also illustrate how
two different presidents used their office to lead the national
policy agenda about the appropriate response to immigration
policy, even changing public attitudes about it (Oskooii
et al., 2021). These examples also clarify the general ratio-
nale motivating this paper: what explains the amount of
attention and tone of presidential rhetoric to immigration
issues over time? To answer these questions, we content
1042283APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211042283American Politics ResearchEshbaugh-Soha and Juenke
1University of North Texas, Denton, USA
2Michigan State University, East Lansing, USA
Corresponding Author:
Eric Gonzalez Juenke, Michigan State University, 303 S. Kedzie Hall, East
Lansing, MI 48823, USA.
The Politics of the President’s
Immigration Rhetoric
Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha1 and Eric Gonzalez Juenke2
Although research on immigration politics is extensive, few scholars have systematically connected immigration politics to
the president’s rhetoric over time. This is surprising since all modern presidents have referenced immigration in their public
statements and presidents play a central role in setting the policy agenda. The primary purpose of this paper is to explain the
president’s immigration rhetoric since 1953. Thus, we collect all presidential speeches on immigration through the Obama
Administration, calculating the president’s monthly attention to immigration, and the relative negativity of the president’s
remarks. We theorize that presidents’ motivation to speak about immigration policy is driven by the attention others devote
to immigration policy, and key interventions in the immigration policy debate. Rhetorical tone, we think, is a function of the
changing policy definition of immigration generated by Prop 187 and the Post-911 era. Our results show that the content of
presidential rhetoric on immigration is indeed a product of these factors, providing us with clear evidence as to when the
president devotes public attention to one of the central issues of American politics.
presidential rhetoric, presidential politics, immigration politics

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