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Texting for Change, Immigration Reform's Stealth Strategy

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I think texting for "change" on a national level may have gotten it's start in mainstream culture with American Idol. More recently, and largely through grassroots organizing, text messaging has become a major tool that's being used to organize for immigration reform.

Regardless of your personal politics around the hot potato that is legal immigration, there is downright sexy online organizing taking place around the topic, and it's happening through the power of texting.
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Images from Day 2 @ RI4A more info @ www.reformimmigrationforamerica.org copyright = jonathan laurence www.jonathanlaurence.com via Flickr
There are 12 million undocumented people currently living (and working) in the United States and the debate surrounding them is fierce and loud. In terms of persuasion tactics, anti-reform organizers are able to organize and promote their position in largely transparent ways. However, for the progressives and the legal immigration advocates, the world of organizing for immigration reform has to master outreach to this multilingual audience, largely living in secret, many of whom are without access to mainstream technology for resources and news.

The team at the Center for Community Change Washington DC, realized that a large part of the base audience for immigration reform wasn't easily reached and didn't have access to technology to be plugged into email or blogs, and more importantly a place at the table with a voice to be able to participate in this core debate that deeply impacts their lives.

While organizing the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) a team of savvy innovators and organizers at the Center for Community Change founded a text message network, now managed by the Reform Immigration for America campaign (RI4A).

Among the goals, RI4A wanted to have a way to mobilize around rapid response actions. Rachel LaBruyere, Deputy Online Director of RI4A, explained, "Text messaging is a tool that's immediate enough to drive calls quickly, but also sophisticated enough to build a much larger network, which enables ongoing action and cultivation of engaged activists. Texting from a mobile network makes it possible for the community to quickly respond in real time when President Obama or another legislator makes a controversial or important comment about immigration reform."
3604311202_33f0270fb8 Images from Day 2 @ RI4A more info @ www.reformimmigrationforamerica.org copyright = jonathan laurence www.jonathanlaurence.com via Flickr
In fact this happened last fall when Obama made a statement about recommitting himself to immigration reform, within moments of the media melee RI4A responded and more than 30k phone calls were made to the white house thanking Obama for stepping up. As fired up as legal immigration advocates get towards anti-immigration politics, they get equally fired up and express solidarity and gratitude. Jamming the phone lines with "thanks" can be as effective as jamming them with "complaints."

Text messaging tools also make it possible to mobilize the network around crisis situations like the earthquake in Haiti. Two weeks ago when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton mentioned the idea of protected temporary status, RI4A responded by text and drove thousands of calls into the White House. Later that day, temporary protective status (TPS), which immigrant rights activists have been working towards for years, was granted for Haiti.

That same week, the RI4A campaign held a week of action for immigration reform that generated more than 7,000 calls and 12,000 faxes to senators, in coordination with more than 109 events across the country. While RI4A's Haiti text messaging, calls, and faxes were separate from the main week of action, when TPS was granted the campaign's network responded again with calls of thanks.

Here's how it works:

(Note: Everything by RI4A is executed in both Spanish and English)

  1. A text message of no more than 160 characters including spaces. Brevity is the beauty and curse of the mobile interface, so the "ask" has to be concise:"Immigration Alert:1000's of Haitian undocumented immigrants risk deportation 2 Haiti. Call Obama, ask 4 Temporary Protected Status NOW! 866-930-3396 Pls Forward"
  2. A toll-free phone number is set up that patches through to the target (e.g. senators offices) and the fancy backend routing is managed by a firm (e.g. Mobile Commons).
  3. A 30 sec or less "script" of what to say is used to prep the callers (this occurs while the call is en route)
  4. A "Thank you" ping-back is sent to the caller, which is also used as both a list-building technique and social share opportunity (e.g."fwd or join the list!")

Text messaging isn't only about making calls or sending faxes, it's also about organizing. Getting a group of people to show up at a "house party" or "listening party" at a random location is already a challenge for organizers working with documented people, imagine the challenges for a population that is fearful of arrest, separation from family, and deportation. Can it be done?

Against the odds, not only can it be done, but done well.

Last October, RI4A hosted a national Obama-style telephonic town hall with Representative Luiz Gutierrez organized as a "distributed event." Leveraging text messaging, online organizing tools like email, and Google Maps integration, people self organized and over 1,000 house parties were held, 60,000 individual lines joined the call, and radio stations voluntarily streamed the call to even more supporters.

Just two weeks ago, 109 events were held 28 different states (unlikely places like OH, MI, AR, NC, and even AK), some drawing crowds as big as 2,500. For each of these events, the local RI4A organizers could send in a request to the national campaign for a text message to go out in their area, asking people to turn out for a rally, press conference or vigil. In Charlotte, North Carolina a text message was sent advertising an event at a local church. Organizers expected a crowd of around 500 people for the 6pm rally and when over 2,000 showed up, they had to quickly change venues to accommodate the huge crowd!

One of the most important reasons the RI4A campaign has invested so much time and so many resources into building this list is because of the failed 2007 attempt at immigration reform, where legal immigration advocates' voices were outnumbered nearly 20 to 1 by the anti-immigrant opponents calling and faxing into Congress.

According to Rachel LaBruyere:

"This time around, we are making sure that everyone who cares about just and humane immigration reform will be ready to make those phone calls and send those faxes to hold Congress accountable. We know that this won't be an easy fight but we also know that, in the end, the majority of America supports this. We are building this list so that the politics of fear is no longer louder than the voices of people working for the American Dream."

Mobilization matters, especially when the president can only make terse acknowledgment to those 12 million in his State of the Union speech. While it may appear that Immigration Reform is off the table for the coming year, the stealth, smart, texting tactics of the RI4A campaign promise nothing short of fierce fight through action. If a candidate as un-compelling as Scott Brown can get elected (widely as the result of his VOIP campaigning efforts), there is nothing in this movement towards reform that should surprise us in the coming months, including success.

"Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists." -- Franklin D. Roosevelt 1882-1945, Thirty-second President of the U.S.

3598099352_a5c47c26aa @ RI4A more info @ www.reformimmigrationforamerica.org copyright = jonathan laurence www.jonathanlaurence.com via Flickr

Bio: Rachel LaBruyere currently works for the Reform Immigration FOR America campaign where she serves as the Deputy Director of Online Communications. From May 2008 - June 2009 she worked as a Communications Associate for FIRM, the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, authoring the immigration blog Standing FIRM. She moved to Washington, DC in 2007 to pursue her Masters Degree in Spanish and Latin American Studies at American University, after two years of work for an International Public Health non-profit, Curamericas Global, where she lead volunteer teams to impoverished areas of Guatemala and Bolivia to work on women and children's health projects. Rachel earned her Bachelor's in Spanish and Communications at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill in 2005 and claims the beautiful Asheville, NC as her hometown. You can follow her on Twitter @raylab and learn more about her work at www.reformimmigrationforamerica.org

RI4A.org is made possible by technology partner Michael Sabat and the whole Mobile Commons crew, Nicola Wells, Marissa Graciosa - who had the initial vision, and John Brian McCarthy and Henry Fernandez. and M

RI4A.org's website design, presence, and social strategy are made possible by technology partners: Rosalyn Lemieux of Fission Strategy and original design by Jessica Teal.

Get in touch with Chrissie Brodigan or work with her at Jjomedia.com

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