George W. Bush's recent immigration address was described by his aides as an attempt to assert "presidential leadership." The White House must have been unaware that the leading role in the immigration debate was already taken.
After years of Minuteman militias' preening "border patrol" exercises, months of Congressional grandstanding and weeks of debate over a House bill to crack down on immigrants, the immigrant movement struck back. In March, demonstrations and boycotts galvanized millions of people. Critics assailed the protests as futile symbolism, destined for disdain from the Republicans who dominate federal policy and unlikely to captivate the general public. In fact, the protests were so massive--the Associated Press reported that Los Angeles's 500,000 demonstrators made up one of the largest marches "for any cause in recent US history"--that opponents rushed to offer concessions. BusinessWeek, a reliable barometer of establishment opinion, observed that the protests "forced" the Republican leaders of the House and Senate "to repudiate a controversial component" of a bill criminalizing assistance to illegal immigrants. The public also noticed: Two out of three Americans said that they had heard about the demonstrations, according to a Time poll in March.
While the policy debate continues, some progressives are wondering how this movement quickly organized such large and effective protests. How did so many young people and apolitical Americans get involved?
Many factors were in play, but two innovative facets of the movement may offer lessons for progressive politics. The protests drew huge numbers because they embraced people who are typically shunned by the political process, and some of the gatherings benefited from technology-driven grassroots organizing, using everything from text messaging to social networking on the Internet.
Conventional campaigns, even on the left, are targeted at people who already exert influence in the political process, namely activists, voters and donors. But the immigration protest was the rare effort that welcomed the apolitical, who do not usually vote, and those who cannot vote. The rallies and marches drew nonvoters, students and illegal immigrants into their inchoate coalition. And some of the political novices were proficient in organizing technology, even if they did not think about it that way.
In California's largest public school district, more than 100,000 students-- one-quarter of the middle school and high school population--boycotted class on the May 1 "day without immigrants." For national organizations spearheading the events, finding first-time student protesters is hard enough, let alone mobilizing them. Yet it appears that many young people found one another with little formal direction.
Many students got involved through MySpace.com, a social networking website that lets people link to friends and create profiles with photos and music. With 70 million members, most of whom are teenagers, it is one of the top ten most popular destinations on the Internet. (MySpace and its parent company, Intermix Media, were acquired last year for $580 million by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, but the site does not share the politics of its corporate cousins, such as Fox News, because most of its content is produced by users themselves.) Students were already communicating about their lives through MySpace, so when immigration became a hot issue, why not that too? Sprinkled through the website's millions of pages, comments cropped up about the protests, the national boycott and how students felt about Congress trying to criminalize their parents' existence.
For example, "May1--san anto against 4437," a page mobilizing San Antonio protests against HR 4437, the Republican immigration bill, attracted more than 400 "friends" in two months. The site is run by an unnamed 36-year-old woman in San Antonio who provides updates on legislation and local events; it is plastered with colorful fliers, protest pictures, editorial cartoons and snippets of conversation from visitors. "Hell Yeah!!!! Let's do this so that we can show them that we are human beings, not "illegals!!" wrote Denise, a 20-year-old who visited the site a few days before the student walkout. There are also comments opposing illegal immigrants and criticizing protesters for waving Mexican flags; the site even devotes a subsection to "hate mail" from anti-immigration factions. The week before the May 1 boycott, Carl Webb, a 40-year-old in Austin, posted an open request for related events in his area. Webb, whose page greets visitors with a recording of Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," says he learned about immigration events from MySpace, which he uses to discuss "working-class struggles" and to communicate with "hundreds of political types."
Yet the messages also spread to young people who showed little interest in immigration or activism. The MySpace page of "G," a student at Marshall Senior High in Los Angeles, is devoted to Nike sneakers and rap music. But by late April, "G" posted what appeared to be his first political message, advising his friends to participate in the "National Boycott for Immigrant Rights No Work! No School! No Business as Usual!" Similar messages were quickly transmitted and discussed across pre-existing friendship networks. The Dallas Morning News reported that the pro-immigration rallies may be "the largest political gathering organized on [MySpace]."
The immigration protests suggest that fairly apolitical young people can quickly be moved from politics online to activism in the streets if the issue is salient and if the information comes from trusted sources. With millions of young people connected through these social networking sites, is it time for a political MySpace?
One new website, Essembly.com, is betting the answer is yes. Founded by Harvard senior Joe Green with venture capital, the start-up is billed as a "fiercely non-partisan" networking site for the "politically interested" to debate ideas and organize. While social sites tend to connect people based on where they live and what they like to do, Essembly adds ideological links to the matrix. Green contends that people usually visit social networking sites because they're trying to "get laid or have a conversation." Essembly encourages the latter, by asking users to vote on simple statements, called resolves, which are provided by both the website and users. They range from offhand musings, like "I can't stand kids who think its cool to hate America," to policy pronouncements such as "The United States should continue with its plans to build a wall on its southern border to help slow the flow of illegal immigration from coming into our nation." After voting, users can see the aggregate results and search for people, informal groups and organizations that are "ideologically close," and define friends, "allies" and even "nemeses."
While Essembly is still in its beta testing stage, new users have already begun debating immigration and the recent student activism. By May 26, there were twenty-four resolves about immigration and border patrol, including one discussing the protests' impact. One day after the national boycott, Ben Huizenga, a Chicago voter who recently joined the site, wrote that the marchers' "demonstration of political activism and self sufficiency" could appeal to the general public. Pat Goltz, a Tucson resident who lists Americans for Limited Government among her groups, countered that the boycott "backfired."
While many popular Essembly groups have been created by users, such as "Socially Conscious Surfers" and "Proponents of Minor's Rights," several organizations are experimenting with top-down recruitment through the site, including the College Republicans, NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Appollo Alliance. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, DC, has already organized two Essembly groups: An official group featuring its logo and mission statement and a group for "Heritage Interns." Meanwhile, the Campaign for America's Future, a progressive policy center, formed an Essembly group that allows users to compare their ideology to its founder, Robert L. Borosage, who has voted on twelve resolves and written seven original comments.
It is still too early to tell whether social networking sites will engage and empower a significant number of new activists or young people. Essembly may provide a dynamic space for new people across the political spectrum to debate ideas and take action, but it could also reveal that ideological social networking appeals mostly to the activists who are already engaged.
The immigrant protests did prove that young people in America can still mobilize for massive, coordinated and effective progressive action. Whether that will happen again soon does not simply depend on the issues at stake. It depends on how political leaders regard traditionally powerless groups, and whether the Internet generation decides politics is so personal that it is worth pushing on their friends.