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Members of the Facebook group "DO I LOOK LIKE AN 'ILLEGAL' " use photos to protest Arizona's new immigration law.

Social media connects immigration activists

by Geoffrey Hing
June 03, 2010

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was meeting with President Obama at the White House Thursday to discuss her state's controversial new immigration enforcement law. Outside the White House, people were protesting and someone had snapped a photo and posted it on Twitter.

Within minutes, the tweet and link to the photo had been reposted on the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights' own Twitter feed.

Sending updates about immigration issues is one way that the coalition uses social media like Facebook and Twitter, said Nathan Ryan, the organization's e-advocacy, web and technology manager. He said the coalition also uses social media for fundraising, event promotion, getting feedback from its online community and connecting different groups involved in immigration issues.

Ryan said ICIRR's use of social media, which was introduced around four years ago, tied into the work the organization was already doing. “If you're going to run a campaign, there's no way that online tools, no matter how awesome, no matter how great they are, are going to make that campaign work,” he said. “The power of online is that you can combine it with good organizing and good research and good outreach to make an even more powerful campaign.”

Social media has also helped bring a shift in the political action of the immigrant rights movement, Ryan said. He remembers a time only a few years ago, when feedback from immigrant rights advocates to elected officials was overshadowed by communication from anti-immigrant groups. “Hundred of thousands of people marched, but they weren't calling, they weren't writing letters in the way that the other side has done it,” Ryan said. “Now we're getting our voices heard not only through marching in the streets but also through marching with our fingers sending faxes, making phone calls. And a lot of that organizing has been done online.”

One tool that is particularly exciting to Ryan is a text messaging system run by the Reform Immigration for America campaign, to which ICIRR belongs. “By sending a text message somebody can get plugged in to what's going on nationally with the struggle for immigrant rights,” Ryan said. Text messages are particularly effective because immigrant communities are likely to use text messaging, the medium appeals to youth and the messages can reach people who don't have access to computers or the Internet.

Ryan said social media has also been crucial for connecting undocumented immigrant youth. “Being able to meet other undocumented students online, join a Facebook group, and be able to share the experiences, the fears, the hopes and the aspirations of other undocumented people – online tools are great for doing that,” he said.

Juan is the communications director for Dream Activist, a website that provides information and resources for undocumented students. He is also one of the undocumented immigrant youth that Ryan said were connecting with social media. Juan works closely with the media and has shared his personal story of immigration online, but won't reveal his last name out of fear that the university where he is attending will find out about his immigration status.

“You're free to reveal as much of your identity as you wish to,” Juan said, explaining that social media sites allow undocumented youth to protect their privacy but also help to tell their stories and connect with others who share their experience. “You kind of grow up with that fear and that whole perspective that nobody is ever supposed to know about your immigration status. Once you eventually get over that hurdle, naturally the next thing that is going to go is that you're going to write up something and post it anonymously online,” Juan said. Some eventually choose to connect their story with their name, he said. “The more we hide, the harder it becomes to connect.”

A recent trip to Washington, D.C., Juan said, was the first time he met in person many of the activists with whom he had collaborated online over the last three years. He said needing a state-issued identification card to fly and stories of immigration raids on buses deter many undocumented youth from traveling across state lines. “The distance, that boundary, just that whole barrier that we have that we can't see each other face to face kind of disappears because of social media,” Juan said.

While high-profile organizations such as ICIRR and networks of activists like Juan are using social media to take on immigration issues, others are joining the debate at a grassroots level.

Aissa Conchola and other students involved in student government at California State University, Fullerton started a Facebook group to protest the Arizona immigration enforcement bill. The group features photos of members holding signs with the words “Do I look like an illegal?”

Conchola said the group started with about five people who wanted to push Arizona's government to reconsider the law and to show solidarity with undocumented students. “We were just students wanting to spread awareness amongst other students,” Conchola said.

Today, the page lists over 1,600 members; not huge when compared to the social networking site's most popular groups, but enough to encourage students, like Conchola, who want to continue to work on immigration issues.

“This has become the visual marker on the movement that we want to start,” Conchola said.

Whether it is the photos on Conchola's Facebook group or undocumented youth like Juan sharing their stories, Ryan, the manager of social networking for ICIRR, said social media has allowed activists to re-frame the immigration debate.

“Kind of counter-intuitively, online is where we really found the ability to personalize the immigrant rights movement,” Ryan said.

“If somebody can see a picture of somebody, hear their story and watch a video of them, they're much more likely to be able to relate to that person,” he said. “They're more likely to see them as a mother, as a daughter, as a worker, as a military serviceman, as the human being that they are instead of seeing them as some sort of invader.”