Over winter break, while many undergraduates were busy catching up on sleep, Communication major Amanda Damon (C’19) was collecting data on immigration and civil rights legislation and reform for her senior honors thesis. For months, she had been corresponding with librarians and archivists at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas and the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California in preparation to visit them in January.
And then the longest government shutdown in U.S. history hit, throwing a wrench in her plans.
In her thesis, titled “The Immigration Debate in America Today: A Modern Day Civil Rights Issue,” Damon, who is concentrating in Communication and Public Service (ComPS), argues that the current polarizing rhetoric surrounding immigration mirrors the civil rights debates of the 1960s and the resistance to desegregating American institutions.
Building on research she did for previous Communication courses taught by her advisor, Lecturer David Eisenhower, Damon’s thesis compares former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in civil rights to the way that the Obama and Trump administrations have handled immigration reform.
Damon sees a unique relationship between the fights to achieve civil rights and immigration reform in both the framing and the timing of the issues. Through a close look at the ways that American citizens and politicians have talked about immigration and civil rights, Damon hopes not only to explore the similarities between the two issues but also to highlight how presidential rhetoric can influence both public outlook and policy decisions.
“I really want to look at the qualities in Johnson’s rhetoric that enabled him to pass successful civil rights legislation as well as an immigration act,” Damon says. “Some of the rhetorical characteristics that I’ve identified so far in my research are Johnson's directness, assurance, and immediacy.”
Through a contemporary textual analysis of speeches from Obama and Trump, Damon hopes to identify the differences and similarities to the way that Johnson spoke about immigration and civil rights in the 1960s. For Obama, she plans to do a close read of his Nationwide Immigration Reform Address in 2014. For President Trump, Damon will examine his 2016 Candidate Immigration Address.
To provide greater context for the modern immigration debate, Damon has also identified President Reagan as a key figure for her research. Through an exploration of the rhetorical debate that led to the passage of the 1986 Immigration Act – the current immigration law in place today – Damon traces the history of immigration reform from Johnson’s immigration act to the present.
Despite the government shutdown, Damon was able to find an alternative way to continue her research. She made a trip to California where she not only visited the Ronald Reagan Museum, which remained open throughout the shutdown, but she also spent a majority of her time doing research at the UCLA library. With the help of the UCLA special collections division, Damon was able to collect valuable primary source material.
“A big takeaway throughout this research has been the overall instability of our nation’s history with immigration,” says Damon. “The civil rights acts of the 1960s are an example of the type of comprehensive legislation needed to provide stability for modern immigration reform.”
Since beginning her work on her senior honors thesis, Damon, who is concentrating in Communication and Public Service (ComPS), has received funding from the Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy as well as the Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Immigration (CESRI).
When she’s not busy chipping away at her research, Damon can be found performing with Soundworks Tap Factory, Penn’s one and only strictly tap dance group. After graduation, she will be working as a business analyst at McKinsey & Company where she hopes to expand upon her interests in research, analysis, and business strategy.