It's hard to remember now, but there was once a time when even Republicans talked about the need for "comprehensive immigration reform."
It was a time when immigration was viewed as a complex issue that required a thoughtful solution for the 11 million-plus undocumented people living in the United States. Fixing the problem was a serious chore for a serious country.
Then, suddenly, the conversation took a sharp turn towards stupid. Not surprisingly, it happened right around the time that Donald Trump entered the race on June 16, 2015.
Along with our parent-company Univision, Fusion has been collaborating with the MIT Media Lab's Laboratory for Social Machines to explore the election-related conversation on social media. It's part of our series called The Social Campaign.
The lab has developed a tool called the Electome, which uses natural language processing and semantic analysis to identify and classify election-related tweets by topic and candidate. Working with Univision, we developed a list of major immigration issues, which the lab then tracked using its tool.
Looking at a year-long plot of Twitter talk, we found a correlation between Trump's campaign gaining momentum and an increase in tweet shares about issues such as illegal/undocumented immigration, mass deportation and building a wall on the border. At the same time, Twitter activity about substantive policy issues dropped to the bottom of the chart, replaced by fear-mongering.
A year ago, almost nobody was talking about a wall. Now it's dominating the Twitter conversation about immigration.
Data source: Lab for Social Machines, MIT Media Lab, 'Electome' project. Share of election-related conversation by immigration sub-topic for the period March through May 2016. Tweets not associated with a sub-topic were classed as 'other' and removed from the dataset.
Here's a blow-by-blow, topic-by-topic breakdown of how the immigration conversation has shifted from March 2015 to May 2016.
To view information about key milestones in the immigration conversation rollover the interactive charts below.
Pathway to Citizenship
Let's start at the beginning. A few months before Trump entered the race with his anti-Mexican immigrant platform, 28% of election-related Twitter chatter about immigration focused on a idea of a pathway to citizenship. It was the No. 1 Twitter topic related to immigration.
That doesn't mean everybody was in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. The topic was already showing signs of waning on Twitter following the House of Representatives' failure to pass the 2013 bipartisan Senate bill. But pathway to citizenship still dominated the immigration conversation, and even Republican presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Jeb! were talking about it (before being cowed into silence by Trump). By comparison, talk of building a border wall represented less than 2% of Twitter talk at that time.
A year later, virtually nobody is talking about a pathway to citizenship anymore.
A month before Trump got into the race, there was a slight uptick in substantive policy discussion on Twitter around DAPA, Obama's newly announced stopgap measure for immigration reform.
In November 2014, President Obama—in an act of supreme frustration with Republican leadership in the House—announced a series of executive actions on immigration policy to offer temporary deportation relief to millions of undocumented adults. The initiative became known as DAPA, a companion piece to a similar deferred action program that shields millions of undocumented kids from deportation. The measures were designed to offer temporary reprieve to some 5 million undocumented people living in the U.S.
Obama made it clear that his executive action wasn't meant to replace "common sense" immigration reform, but offered it as a temporary solution until Congress could get its act together. "Our immigration system is broken, and everybody knows it," Obama said.
Unfortunately, even Obama's stopgap measure hit a wall. Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents has been on hold since February 2015, when a district court in Texas ordered an injunction on Obama’s executive action before it could get out of the starting blocks. That legal battle, known as United States vs. Texas, is now before the Supreme Court.
In May 2015, on the day when the executive order should have gone into effect, immigration activists rallied to protest the delay. The rallies resulted in a small spike in conversation about policy issues and DAPA/DACA on Twitter.
A month later, Trump entered the race, and as his campaign gained momentum, the conversation about immigration shifted dramatically. DAPA and DACA never really became mainstream Twitter topics. Instead, talk of undocumented/illegal immigration started to trend.
In July 2015 the media reported that undocumented immigrants were working at the construction site of the new Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. Twitter reacted, and the issue of illegal/undocumented immigration dominated the conversation throughout the summer and fall.
Undocumented vs. illegal is not a tomato, tomato issue. Immigration activists have taught us that people are not illegal, they are undocumented. The AP Stylebook dropped the term "illegal alien" in 2013, and the U.S. Library of Congress finally dropped it this year.
Those still clinging to the term are doing so on purpose, as a pushback to political correctness and to criminalize immigrants. So when Donald Trump released a fear-mongering campaign ad on Feb. 13 talking about "an illegal immigrant gang member," the words were chosen carefully for maximum impact.
And Trump's words worked. They caused a second spike in Twitter chatter around undocumented/illegal immigrants last February.
At the same time, another topic began to trend: Mass deportation.
In August 2015, Donald Trump committed to deporting all 11 million-plus undocumented immigrants in the United States. He hasn't said how he would do that or how much it would cost, but the total lack of details and feasibility has not prevented the topic from trending on Twitter. In September, it even topped the chart briefly as the most-discussed election-related immigration topic.
The idea of mass deportation is a bit ridiculous, but ridiculous thrives on Twitter. The more lip service Trump gives the idea of mass deportation, the more it finds echo on social media. The topic trended from the fall until the spring, but was eventually usurped by chatter about Trump's central campaign promise: A border wall.
When Trump first proposed building a 'great wall' during his campaign launch, nobody else was talking about it. A month later, the conversation had started to shift, when Trump visited the Mexican border to underscore his proposal.
Within months, the topic of building a wall shot up to the No. 1 spot, representing 18% of all Twitter chatter on immigration. By then talk of a pathway to citizenship had all but fallen off the charts, dropping to 6%.
Trump's repetition is paying off. Driven upward by recurring spikes, Twitter talk about the wall has been steadily increasing over the past year. The most recent spike on April 5 was in response to Trump's announcement that he plans to make Mexicans pay for the wall by taxing remittances.
As of this month, more than 22% of election-related immigration talk on Twitter focuses on building a wall, while only 2% are still talking about a pathway to citizenship. Granted not everyone who talks about the wall is in support of the idea—a lot of people think it's batshit crazy—but nevertheless it shows how Trump has hijacked the conversation and reset the agenda about immigration.
Reframing the Conversation
While this data just represents talk and not action—sadly similar to the immigration debate in Washington—the trends suggest that even if Trump fails in his bid for the presidency, the country could face a Trumpian hangover that lingers for sometime afterwards.
What remains to be seen is how much the eventual Democratic candidate will allow Trump to continue setting the tone and terms of the immigration debate. Hillary Clinton says she favors immigration reform, but will she be able to wrest the conversation away from Trump and steer it back towards substance?
Will the presumptive Democratic nominee be able make her voice heard over the din of Trump's border-wall banging? Or will the Orange Menace continue to drive the conversation into November and beyond?
Follow Twitter to find out.
Featured animation: Daniel Munoz, Voiceover: Anna Sterling
Data partner: The 'Electome' is a project of the Laboratory for Social Machines, MIT Media Lab, with funding by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Lisa Conn, Prashanth Vijayaraghavan and Soroush Vosoughi researchers at the Laboratory for Social Machines, MIT Media Lab, prepared the data used in this story.
Kate Stohr is a data journalist and community builder based in San Francisco, CA.
Tim Rogers, Fusion's senior editor for Latin America, was born a gringo to well-meaning parents, but would rather have been Nicaraguan. Also, he's the second hit on Google when you search for "Guatemalan superhero." Tim was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.