Computational analysis of 140 years of US political speeches reveals more positive but increasingly polarized framing of immigration

Dallas Card, Serina Chang, Chris Becker, Julia Mendelsohn, Rob Voigt, Leah Boustan, Ran Abramitzky, Dan Jurafsky

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


We classify and analyze 200,000 US congressional speeches and 5,000 presidential communications related to immigration from 1880 to the present. Despite the salience of antiimmigration rhetoric today, we find that political speech about immigration is now much more positive on average than in the past, with the shift largely taking place between World War II and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965. However, since the late 1970s, political parties have become increasingly polarized in their expressed attitudes toward immigration, such that Republican speeches today are as negative as the average congressional speech was in the 1920s, an era of strict immigration quotas. Using an approach based on contextual embeddings of text, we find that modern Republicans are significantly more likely to use language that is suggestive of metaphors long associated with immigration, such as “animals” and “cargo,” and make greater use of frames like “crime” and “legality.” The tone of speeches also differs strongly based on which nationalities are mentioned, with a striking similarity between how Mexican immigrants are framed today and how Chinese immigrants were framed during the era of Chinese exclusion in the late 19th century. Overall, despite more favorable attitudes toward immigrants and the formal elimination of race-based restrictions, nationality is still a major factor in how immigrants are spoken of in Congress.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2120510119
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number31
StatePublished - Aug 2 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Congress
  • dehumanization
  • framing
  • immigration
  • metaphor


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