Last year I worked with a nonprofit to advocate for the passage of the DREAM Act. I knew the odds were long, and of course, the legislation ultimately didn't pass.
But I would feel better today about fighting the good fight if I hadn't known, at the time, that our approach was doomed. I had a queasy sensation early on, when I saw one of the video packages that the nonprofit put together (I wasn't involved with that stage of the campaign).
The video featured kids who would directly benefit from the DREAM Act's passage. Much of it was good, with heart-tugging stories from all-American, clean-cut teens.
But then the bottom fell out. The voice-over threw around terms like "fairness" and "justice." And one of the teens stated that he "deserved" the rights that the DREAM Act would confer.
I knew it was over as soon as the kid said that word.
Americans don't want to hear that anybody deserves anything. Hell, many citizens will lose their minds if one implies that they deserve basic healthcare (and that's in their own self-interest!). They certainly don't want to hear that some whiny kid who wasn't even born in this country "deserves" his rights.
Sending a video to media outlets and political leaders that featured this tone-deaf tactic just stunned me. Clearly, many advocates of immigration reform haven't learned the importance of basic marketing.
They continue to push the compassion angle, or back up their assertions with facts that impress no one.
But if the Bush years taught us anything, it's that sympathy is for suckers. More important, we learned that the truth is irrelevant. Or it's at least a distant second to proper messaging.
How else do you think conservatives got an overwhelming majority of Americans to embrace a war that made absolutely no sense?
Other progressive movements have learned this tactic.
For example, gay rights are also issue of fairness and basic justice. Yet, advocates of repealing the DADT Policy went easy on this essential truth. Instead, they successfully presented the issue as one that was necessary for America's well-being.
The message was, basically, "We need all the help we can get establishing a strong military and intelligence network. This will keep America safe, so drop your prejudice in favor of simple self-preservation."
It worked. DADT is history.
Immigration-reform advocates need to adopt this strategy. Instead of pointing out how unfair or irrational our policies are -- which is true but a loser's lament -- hit people in the wallet by making it clear that a massive-deportation philosophy will cost them money. Or hammer home the idea that policies such as the Dream Act will improve the economy and strengthen the military.
In other words, let's see more about how immigration reform will benefit current citizens, instead of pleading that civil rights be extended to strangers.
It may not be pretty, or even that principled. But it has to be more effective than what we've accomplished so far.