Juan E. Gastelum is Master of Science student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on twitter @juangastelum.
Walter Lara’s first tweet back in 2009 started with the words “I’m being deported.” Two years later, he lives in Miami, works legally, has a driver’s license and pays in-state tuition at Miami Dade College.
He is one of a few dozen young, undocumented immigrants who have avoided deportation and are now enjoying the benefits — even if only temporary — of being in the United States legally as a result of campaigns in which social media played a crucial role.
Social media platforms provide the means by which these youths, who call themselves Dreamers, can find each other without travelling or exposing their status. They appeal to supporters nationwide and petition en masse for extensions on deportation dates. They help garner the attention of politicians, lawyers and advocacy groups. And they get Dreamers’ stories out into the public sphere when the attention of the mass media is elsewhere.
Lara, 25, was two weeks away from being deported when Maria Lacayo, a childhood friend, created a Facebook group called “Keep Walter’s Dream Alive.” On the group’s Page, she explained Lara’s situation: His parents brought him to the U.S. from Argentina illegally when he was only three. He is an honor student, and he would be eligible for legal residence under the Dream Act. She also shared her contact information and linked to her Twitter account.
“I woke up the next morning and I had over 400 emails,” says Lacayo, who became Lara’s impromptu campaign manager.
People she had never met started suggesting courses of action and organizations pledged their support. After an influential child advocacy non-profit posted Lara’s information on its website, the group grew to more than 2,000 members. And a Twitter account created the same day on behalf of Lara accumulated more than 300 followers within hours.
With the help of their followers and several non-profits, the pair jumped onto the mass media’s radar, obtained a letter of support from Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, and crashed the switchboard at the Department of Homeland Security on two consecutive days. Three days before he was scheduled to depart, Lara received a yearlong deferment that has since been renewed once.
Dreamers now see Lara’s as a flagship case and have since mimicked and built upon his and Lacayo’s use of social media to halt more deportations.
Alonso Chehade, 24, also faced deportation when he contacted Lacayo only days after Lara’s deferment. He learned what they had done and launched his own campaign in Seattle. Chehade obtained pro-bono legal representation and, with the help of one of the same non-profits, managed to get 5,000 supporters to send in letters to local Congressmen using an online fax service linked to his Facebook Page and personal website. His deportation was delayed indefinitely after Sen. Maria Cantwell, a Democrat in Washington, intervened on his behalf.
The most important role of social media, says Chehade, is to demonstrate public sympathy for people in his position. Since his case was resolved, he has dedicated his efforts to unifying online supporters across various platforms.
A large community of pro-immigrant bloggers and organizers started to develop around 2005, says Kyle de Beausset, who curates a Google group in which more than 1,000 active bloggers across the country interact privately online. But platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have made it much easier for young undocumented youth to find each other without necessarily having to expose themselves.
“They were able to get together anonymously, see the numbers that they had and then start building on that,” says de Beausset.
Indeed, several online venues have become the go-to places for young undocumented immigrants facing deportation and empathizers alike. On Facebook, it is a page with more than 88,000 likes called “Dream Act 2010.” And on Twitter, @DreamAct, which is run by activist group DreamActivist.org, has more than 9,000 followers. These venues have proven, as Chehade would put it, the power of organized clicks.
Campaigns usually start with an individual tweet or Facebook status update that alerts the network that someone has been detained or has received notification that he or she will be deported. Hashtags or @messages ensure that those are targeted at the group and known organizers, who then spread the word and start online petitions that are directed at legislators. Videos of the person telling his or her story are often posted on YouTube. At the same time, organizers on the ground work on getting attorneys and setting up rallies. If all these come together successfully, a deportation can be halted.
Rigoberto Padilla, who was granted a reprieve by Homeland Security in 2009 after a similar campaign, says the organization he now volunteers for in Chicago has stopped six deportations since he started there about a year ago. Two other organizations in Washington, D.C., and Maine report comparable numbers.
The two platforms have also centralized online support for the Dream Act — which would benefit all Dreamers — keeping the contentious bill at the forefront of political discussion. In February, for example, the Dream Act 2010 page directed so many votes to YouTube’s World View program that a Dream Act query was presented as the number one question to that month’s guest, Rep. John Boehner, an Ohio Republican.
Still, Dreamers regard their colossal victories as minimal in comparison to their ultimate goal: to ensure that others in their position — 2.1 million, according to a study by the Migration Policy Institute — can stay in the country long enough to see the Dream Act through.