Smart Image/Social Impact: Myth vs. Reality in the Immigration Debate




Smart Image, Social Impact is an Illustration course taught by faculty and Designmatters Illustration Track leader Esther Pearl Watson. The course is open to all undergraduate Illustration students, and required for Illustration students in the Designmatters Minor. In the Fall 2018 course, students were challenged to work with external partners to explore making work for social impact and change, turning research into actionable images and ideas. In partnership with the Aquarium of the Pacific and Dr. Chris DuPont of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), the first half of the course focused on plastic pollution in the ocean and its impact on environmental health. For the second half of the course, students worked with United We Stay (UWS), a nonprofit immigrant advocacy organization, on their final projects to debunk the myths surrounding immigrants in America.

The final project for the course challenged students to critically dissect common myths about immigration, and through graphic and illustrative art, present the compelling realities of undocumented residents in America and their positive social, economic, and cultural contributions. The impactful posters, along with an informational pamphlet illustrating United We Stay’s Undocumented Americans’ Bill of Rights, is targeted to raise awareness and encourage voters – especially young and/or apathetic – to advocate for changes in the current immigration process.

Project Brief



To convey the compelling realities of immigrant residents in America, ArtCenter students partnered with United We Stay (UWS) and closely examined common myths about immigration. Students employed illustrative and graphic art techniques to create stylish posters which build issue awareness to young and/or apathetic voters. Additionally, the students provided appropriate graphics to an informational pamphlet, United We Stay’s Undocumented Americans’ Bill of Rights. The students displayed their final work at a pop-up exhibit and described to art-goers their processes and unique approaches to disprove these typical myths.



“It makes me proud to see these students put their heart and soul into something they believe in and want to make a difference. They wanted to use their talents to help others. I like how each poster has a distinct personality and, overall, it feels like the posters are coming from a variety of voices.”

– Esther Pearl Watson, Faculty, Illustration

About United We Stay



UWS is a nonprofit organization focused on immigrant rights advocacy, responsible news coverage, and storytelling. The group provides a publishing platform and a welcoming space to convey human interest news stories of determination and courage to debunk common and misleading stereotypes of undocumented Americans.

Established in 2015, the organization also features an Undocumented Americans’ Bill of Rights which serves as a neutral point of dialogue for pro-immigration stakeholders and government policymakers.


“Individually you can make really cool art, but when you come together with other artists, you can make something even more impactful. That’s especially rewarding on an emotional level.”

– Abigal Ohab, Student, Illustration

Research and Project Development



To kick off the project, students were introduced to UWS and its mission of presenting and communicating the facts about immigration in America.

UWS founder Marcelino Miyares and his team led an in-depth discussion with students about immigrants in America, and shared a series of common misbeliefs that often trickled down from social platforms and fringe media outlets into accepted public consciousness.

Students were also introduced to Undocumented Americans’ Bill of Rights, created by UWS, which details common human rights that need to be extended to those without citizenship status. The document is meant to engage dialogue and be a call to action about the treatment of immigrants with respect to healthcare, education, transportation and protection from unscrupulous employers.

Students were assigned one of six common misconceptions and were tasked with researching the subject to develop design ideas. The overall goal of the posters was to create art that informs, dispels inaccuracies, raises issue awareness and encourages voters – especially young and/or apathetic – to work to actively change the immigration process.

The six myths included:

  • They’re Changing our America
  • They’re Taking Our Jobs
  • They’re All Criminals
  • They’re Draining Our Social Service Programs
  • They Don’t Want to Fit In
  • They Won’t Get in Line

First, students needed to understand not only what their myth means, but also where that myth comes from, and the reasons for that perception. As students dissected their myths, they began to see patterns of thought and approach, and observed the damage caused by some of the more pervasive myths.

By sorting out American values that each myth addressed, students discovered how those concepts are being debated on the large stage. Students from immigrant families shared their experiences with their peers which provided a more personal testimony to the issues at hand.

The UWS team worked closely with the students throughout the studio especially in the research phase. The team answered their questions, provided context to their particular issue and offered constructive feedback.

Students realized that they couldn’t just present the facts; they needed to convey the emotional side that fuels the issue. They began to conceptualize how visual and verbal design could influence the message, and how their design could shine a new light and offer a new angle on the issue. Working as a team, students shared their research and insights with one another, that they gained through the process.

In the classroom, students were encouraged to consider the visual ethics of how their illustrations could be perceived, especially when depicting an immigrant. Skin color, traditional clothing and more were discussed as students examined the possible consequences of their design.

Students created mood boards to illustrate a visual direction and inspiration that would serve as the basis for their final poster design.

Knowing their art would be displayed online and via social media helped the students frame the scope of their work. Additionally, printed versions of the posters would be available to educators, grassroots organizers, elected officials and other immigration advocacy groups.  

The students combined their talents to illustrate the Undocumented Americans’ Bill of Rights, they broke up the text with appropriate graphics. They incorporated imagery in their posters that was a visual tie-in.

Students conceptualized other application options for their artwork: bus waiting stations, large-scaled outdoor signage, etc. They also researched the cost for printing the posters.

Unveiling the posters at an art pop-up in downtown Los Angeles, the students shared their artistic journey and their final artwork to the UWS team, other stakeholders and the local media.


“I wanted to push my art in a direction that hasn’t been pushed into yet. This studio gave me that opportunity.”

– Ibby Day, Student, Illustration


They’re Changing Our America
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Vanessa Yu

Multiracial hands of all sizes and ages join together to lift up Lady Liberty’s torch amidst a backdrop of barbed wire fencing. Stars, a symbol of the American flag, shine through the holes to highlight the ongoing truth of the shared American dream.

They’re Taking Our Jobs
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Abby Ohab

The United States is being lifted up by the power of immigrants who, through their work across professional sectors in healthcare, education, food service, etc., carry and keep America’s economy strong and robust.

They’re All Criminals
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Lauren Suh

The somber, muted tones and tired faces of children behind gray metal fencing addresses the fact that immigrant families, not criminals, are the main groups of people seeking haven from dictatorship countries and other hardships.

They Don’t Want to Fit In
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Amy Ng

Showcasing the fact that immigrants are not lazy, but eager, to fit into American culture, this poster features multiracial professionals–some wearing traditional garb–proud of their achievements and contributions as they stand in front of the American flag.

They’re Draining Our Social Services Programs
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Ibby Day

Patriotic red, white and blue text overlays a collage of black and white protest photos that depict immigrants affecting positive change. The focus is on the good that immigrants have provided to American culture.

They Won’t Get in Line
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Nico Abbassi

Immigrants want to follow the proper legal channels to full citizenship but the current system–depicted here as the children’s game of Chutes and Ladders–is a complex and complicated process of green cards, work visas and legal requirements. So often, one mistake could send them back to start all over again.


“These students were very articulate from our very first meeting especially with their perspectives on the issues. They came to the issues with open minds and yet, at the same time, they had a lot of information about the issues. They knew what we were talking about. We didn’t have to educate them; they knew what we wanted to convey to the world, and we left them to interpret that. And they did a beautiful job.”

– Barbara Rabinowitz, United We Stay


United We Stay