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."