In April The Sierra Club announced that it was endorsing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  They argued that a preponderance of disempowered workers in some of the most polluted industries in the country was bad for the environment:

To protect clean air and water and prevent the disruption of our climate, we must ensure that those who are most disenfranchised and most threatened by pollution within our borders have the voice to fight polluters and advocate for climate solutions without fear.

This position nicely brings together one lefty political concern (the environment) with another (concern for undocumented immigrants).  This is probably entirely genuine, but it is also very convenient from a discursive perspective.

I tortured my Sociology 101 students this semester with the phrase “discursive opportunity structure,” which I introduce as “the arrangement of ideas in a society that constrain and enable communication and thought.”  For example, the connection between pink and femininity is automatic in our minds whether we want it to be or not, just as the letters C-A-T conjure up a cat and we couldn’t stop it if we tried.  So ideas aren’t just free floating in our collective minds, they’re built into a relationship with each other, and those relationships are part of our cognition.

Sociologist Leslie King has shown how this constrains how environmentalists can talk about immigration and how anti-immigration activists can talk about the environment.  She considers “population stabilization” activists, a group that believes that immigration is harmful to the environment (paper here, two examples here).

1King argues that the population stabilization movement has struggled largely because the two positions they bring together — pro-environment and anti-immigration — disrupt the discursive opportunity structure.  First, it’s harder for us to get our minds around the argument because it means bringing together a lefty political message and a right one.  Second, insofar as our identity categories depend on the discursive opportunity structure, it requires us to fragment them. Can one be both anti-immigration (on the right) and pro-environment (on the left)?  It takes cognitive work to think that through.

The position announced by The Sierra Club last month, however, neatly fits into our thought patterns.  Most fans of the environmental organization are on the left, so when the press release calls for a path for citizenship, it slips neatly into the political identities and cognitive structures of their audience.  That likely facilitates the likelihood that their position will be both heard and influential.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
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