Immigration Activists Go Virtual With Social Media Leading the 'March'

Online "marches" mean wielding influence "when it is most important."

Tens of thousands of people skipped work in 2006 to march in immigration-rights rallies across the country and on the National Mall in Washington. So the 2013 Virtual March for Immigration Reform, using social media to pressure Congress online, is a clear sign of how the movement is evolving.

Passage of a comprehensive immigration bill like the ones that failed in 2006 and 2007 seems within the reach of supporters on both sides of the political aisle. President Obama sat down with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., last week in order to discuss an immigration bill. The senators' working group is aiming to complete a piece of legislation involving immigration this spring.

But the grassroots passion for and against a bill is nowhere near 2006 levels. And it doesn't look like it will be any time soon. At least not in person.

Political leaders and technology giants including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Tumblr have come together to host a virtual immigration march that will lobby for support of immigration overhaul. The March for Innovation site was launched last month and the site's founders -- a coalition of 30 organizations -- will come to Washington in April to physically lobby on Capitol Hill.

The country's technology leaders wanted to influence the immigration debate in a medium that they thought would be more successful than traditional forms of activism, according to Bloomberg's chief policy adviser, John Feinblatt.

"There are differences between using social media and traditional forms of influence," Feinblatt said. "With old-fashioned forms, you set a date for a march in Washington for 9 a.m. and it ends at noon, and you can't change that. But with social media, you can unleash [the movement] when it is most important."

Feinblatt said the country often misses out by debating the wrong immigration issues.

"Often, what we're doing is debating the wrong issues," he said. "We're debating the border or what to do with the 11 million undocumented workers in the country. We are missing our greatest opportunities, and we're going to find ourselves in the same position 10 years from now that we are in today."

Despite lawmakers' plans for immigration overhaul, many protest organizers from past years have not mobilized groups to launch physical rallies or protests.

One such group, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which mobilized hundreds of people countrywide in counter to 2006 immigration protests, does not plan to physically launch a movement but will still publicize information on the consequences of accepting amnesty.

"As we did in 2006 and 2007, FAIR will be informing the American public about the implications of a mass amnesty," media director Ira Mehlman said. "We expect that given the much worse economic and fiscal situation America is faced with in 2013, American voters will again reject amnesty as a solution to the illegal immigration problem."

The only group that has planned both a virtual and physical bus tour is the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, which most recently hosted a rally on the National Mall in 2010.

"This is the year that it's going to get done," spokeswoman Donna De La Cruz said. "We had so much momentum in the last election with Latino and immigrant voices and we wanted to make sure that carries over to this next year."

Other groups, including the NAACP and Service Employees International Union, announced in January that they would hold a big immigration rally April 10 on Capitol Hill. These groups did not have wide-reaching movements in 2006 or 2007.

For Mike Maples, a managing partner of FLOODGATE, a leading Silicon Valley venture capital firm, movement toward implementing comprehensive immigration laws are encouraging for companies like his.

"I do a lot of work at Stanford and we had Ph.D. students coming to this country for several years … and our antiquated immigration system didn't let them stay," Maples said. "I've been trying to make a difference for quite some time but the political context is now finally coming together."

So why not just hold an actual rally? Maples said that watching the success of online movements for legislation like SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the PROTECT IP Act) shows how much stronger technology is than just a physical protest.

"What we've learned in Silicon Valley is that you have to emphasize your strengths," Maples said. "We seem to have the ability to rally people at mass using our technological platforms."