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Lessons for Experts From DACA

On September 5, 2017, President Donald Trump rescinded DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program which granted deportation reprieves to young immigrants. As soon as the change was announced, immigration attorneys, social scientists, psychologists, and others were consulted for expert explanation. In an instant, the DACA experts were mobilized.

Television and Internet news sources followed a predictable formula. Their coverage included a DACA “expert” who shed light on the complicated and controversial immigration laws. Often these experts, like the pundits around them, responded to political or legal questions but ignored the true underlying fears of Dreamers.

While the news cycles spin and turmoil brews, it is easy to see how Dreamers, the people directly impacted by DACA, are fearful. When Barrack Obama signed DACA, the Dreamers thought they were safe from deportation. With Trump’s change, however, they are justified in fearing that safety has left them. And worse yet, some now fret that by applying for DACA status five years ago they made themselves visible targets for deportation. The Dreamers undoubtedly have many questions and concerns and very few of those concerns are being answered in the swirling controversy on television, news sites, and social media.

There are, of course, noteworthy exceptions where experts directly address the Dreamers, but those examples are few. One such example can be found in the LA Times, on September 7, 2017. The article, “Educators’ big response to the DACA decision” included a quote from Maria Blanco, the head of the UC Immigrant Legal Services Center. In the article, Blanco was given 42 words to explain the DACA ruling. Under the circumstances, Blanco did very well and was quoted as saying, “We have a very good shot at legislation in Congress and making that happen right away. Students shouldn’t do anything like quit school or their jobs. If you have DACA rights now, you still have them today. That’s the most important thing.” With brevity and clarity Blanco provided reassurance and direction to fearful Dreamers. It would be difficult to thread more information into a shorter quote.

In contrast to Blanco’s quote, the same article quoted seven university chancellors. The LA Times attributed nearly 500 words to the distinguished educators saying things like:

  • “This is indeed a sad day for our nation,” Gene Block, UCLA.
  • “We are heartbroken for our undocumented immigrant communities,” Carol Christ, UC Berkeley.
  • “I am profoundly disappointed,” Howard Gillman, UC Irvine.

Unlike Blanco, none of the chancellors explained the law, the recent change, or the specific actions Dreamers should take. Instead, they took nearly 500 words to only appeal to the emotions of the Dreamers.

All experts should take note of two important lessons from this article. First, experts must be succinct. Blanco was able to effectively convey an important message in only 42 words. In contrast, the Chancelors had nearly 500. When things get contentious or volatile, political or polarized, experts get less time, not more, to express their point of view. When emotions run high, the expert must cut through the noise and say the most important things with clarity and objectivity. With all the DACA bluster, Blanco successfully emphasized her most important message and delivered it concisely.

Second, emotion often matters more than facts. Undoubtedly, Blanco could have talked at length about the history, changes and status of DACA, but the LA Times was not interested in history or legal details. Editors at the LA Times know that readers are emotional about DACA, and so the newspaper rightfully crafted their article to the beat of the emotional drum. Passion routinely eclipses data, especially when emotions are high.

No matter the industry or discipline, expert opinions will get a tenth of the time that is allocated to the emotional opinions. Experts should expect no more. When emotions are high, experts must be able to tailor their messages to the emotional realities of the day. Your audience will not hear any of your facts unless they are emotionally prepared to hear them.