DMI Blog

Elana Levin

Memo to the Netroots on Immigration

TO: The Netroots
FROM: Elana Levin
The Drum Major Institute for Public Policy
DATE: December 4, 2007
RE: Immigration and the blogosphere

The problem:
America’s current immigration policy is clearly unacceptable to the general public, immigrant rights activists, immigration opponents and organized labor. Even corporations are dissatisfied with the status quo, even if for their own profit-driven reasons. There is a consensus that reform is needed but there is no consensus on what that reform should look like. At the same time, the status quo of maximum noise with minimum action is a political strategy for a certain segment of the organized right wing. The netroots can play a critical role on this issue by facilitating a conversation that will lead to increased political will for a progressive immigration policy that will benefit America’s squeezed middle class and all those struggling to become middle class.

Many progressive and centrist politicians and political influencers have, until recently, chosen to either remain silent on the need for comprehensive immigration reform or confine their speech to statements supporting an increase in border control only. Local elections across the nation have shown that anti-immigrant demagogy does not win elections despite the public’s concerns about the issue. Yet political leaders continue to advise progressives running for office to regard immigration policy as a “third rail" that should not be touched.

The current state of the debate on immigration policy is entirely unproductive and the relative silence of progressive movement voices has, and will continue, to contribute greatly to the lack of vision and unity on this issue. Treating immigration as a cause to support or attack for the sake of political expediency will not lead to an immigration policy that will strengthen and expand the middle class.

What is progressive immigration policy:

Responding to a vacuum in the immigration debate in 2005, the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy issued our report: Principals for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand America’s Middle Class. In our report, we offer a framework for looking at immigration policy based on a shared economic interest in a progressive solution:

1) Immigrants make critical contributions to our economy as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers and consumers. Progressive immigration policy should bolster, not undermine, those contributions.

2) When immigrants lack rights in the workplace, labor standards can be driven down for everyone. Thus, progressive immigration policy must strengthen the workplace rights of immigrants and Americans.

Read the report’s Executive Summary for arguments and citations supporting both parts of the litmus test. DMI has also issued talking points to translate the framework into conversation.

We have long argued that this debate cannot be resolved legislatively. It is a question of shaping hearts and minds. To do this, we need effective messengers, messengers who are powerful voices but who also have a real analysis of the immigration issue. For that reason, we urge the netroots to view our work and that of other experts in this field (see resources).

The Netroots on immigration so far:

Blue America, a PAC lead by FireDogLake, Down With Tyranny, Crooks and Liars and Digby, have launched an exciting campaign to hold Congressman Rahm Emanuel accountable for instructing DCCC candidates to regard immigration policy as a political “third-rail”. Their work in concert with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights could turn into a model of the kind of collaboration needed moving forward. By focusing on pro-migrant policy rather than the political ramifications of Rep. Emanuel's anti-migrant strategy, the netroots showed a potential to shape this policy debate if done properly.

The burgeoning Latino/a blogosphere, front-lined by the likes of Latino Pundit, Latina Lista and Para Justicia y Libertad and which includes immigration policy blogs like Immigration Orange and Migra Matters, continue to expose anti-immigrant myths, call attention to under-reported stories, promote immigrant voices and drive on-the-ground pro-migrant activism. Diarists on community blogs like “Colorado Luis” and Migra Matters editor “Duke1676”’s crossposts to DailyKos have kept blog readers outside of the immigrant rights community informed of ICE raids and deportations. There must be greater attention for their efforts outside of immigrant rights circles.

The Netroots' role

An independent voice is needed now as a check against the Democratic Party’s inclination to defer on this issue, corporations’ interest in maintaining a class of easily exploited workers and television pundits’ desire for ratings inspired by anti-immigrant demagoguery. Bloggers are perfectly suited for this role as a truly populist voice demanding the interests of the current and aspiring middle class be front and center in the immigration debate.

The netroots’ political independence, understanding of the importance of framing and ability to act as a megaphone to the voices and concerns of people outside the beltway could be a godsend to the cause of progressive immigration reform. The netroots has already proven its ability to change the conventional wisdom about politics and create new media narratives. This political skill and power can be used in the fight for progressive immigration reform in the following ways:

1. Make it a priority to discuss this issue.

With the 08 elections around the corner, it will be easy for critical policy issues like immigration to either get sidelined or only be discussed in terms of the political relevance of Hispanic population growth. That approach will not get the progressive movement united on a sound policy message and will not create the political will sufficient to compel the federal government to pass a constructive immigration policy.

However, it is also possible that immigration will be a central issue in the campaign because of Republican efforts to excite their base. The discussion of immigration coming from candidates who have traditionally supported immigrant rights has been reactive, a defensive crouch in response to the Lou Dobbs tirades rather than a serious engagement in the issue. Even candidates who have pro-immigrant platforms are making the mistake of not explaining their stances through the lens of the middle-class squeeze, and because they fear their pro-immigrant views will make them a target, they refrain from being specific about policy or saying very much at all. Bloggers are great at holding Democrats accountable for their positions. Bloggers can use their power to drive candidates to take pro-middle class, pro-immigrant stances and spell out constructive immigration policy.

2. Educate your readers about the substance, not just the politics of this issue

Currently, the blogosphere is facing an immigration policy information gap between the work being issued by policy institutions and the information relayed to blog readers. The disturbingly high frequency of anti-immigrant comments from progressive blog readers about wage suppression -- left in response to blog posts that support comprehensive immigration reform-- demonstrate that the arguments being made in these posts are not addressing progressive blog readers’ core economic concerns. Excellent policy reports and studies have been released that prove the value of immigrants to America’s future, but even pro-immigrant blogs are not arming their readers with that policy information.

By referencing studies and policy reports such as The Pew Study of English usage among immigrants, the University of Illinois study on how immigrant enforcement threatens workers rights , and the Fiscal Policy Institute’s study of immigrants' economic contributions to New York’s economy, bloggers can better educate their readers about immigration policy and specifically address their own readers’ legitimate concerns about the presence of undocumented workers in the labor market and worker exploitation. Bloggers need to make a policy-based argument that enforcement-only immigration legislation would actually increase the likelihood of wage suppression and harm the current and aspiring middle class. Absent this conversation progressive blog readers will continue to believe that nativist immigration arguments are populist.

Blogs can also consider having immigration policy experts and organizers guest blog on their sites as FireDogLake recently has and as DMI has done for some blogs such as Alternet’s.

3. Keep an eye on local politicians

With the federal government abdicating its responsibility to pass immigration reform, state and municipal governments have enacted their own immigration policies. Some of these policies -- such as New Haven Connecticut’s issuing of municipal identification cards -- are models of smart immigration policy that should be replicated. Others, such as Riverside New Jersey’s law to penalize landlords and business owners for renting apartments to or employing undocumented workers, are patently destructive to local economies. The town’s economy was so devastated by the anti-immigrant law that the Town Council voted 3 to 1 to rescind it.

Bloggers can be watchdogs to their local politicians about immigration legislation, telegraphing policies that work and policies that do not. Bloggers can encourage their local leaders to consider replicating positive policies implemented in other parts of the country as well. Much like former Senator George Allen’s “macaca moment” bloggers can take the lead in exposing anti-immigrant rhetoric used at below the radar local political events.

4. Keep an eye on the press

Much of the toxicity in the current immigration debate stems not just from rhetoric used by pundits such as Lou Dobbs or Bill O'Reilly but by biased language used to report news stories in the legitimate press outlets. The default language politicians and the media use to discuss comprehensive immigration reform is inaccurate.

The inaccurate wording used by newspapers' online polls is one example. In a recent online poll issued by the respected Long Island paper Newsday, there was an online poll asking " What kind of immigration reform should Congress pass?" The only response options were various levels of enforcement-only legislation, guest worker programs or "amnesty". After the DMIBlog wrote about the skewed poll, Newsday realized its error and took down the poll saying they would be more careful about their word choice in the future. Similar tactics could be employed to respond to other media run polls, like CNN's constantly toxic viewer polls. Bloggers can push the media to refrain from using conservative language like “illegals” when reporting on immigration and should keep an eye out to make sure they do not use that language in their own posts. Media watchdogs such as Media Matters for America have done an excellent job issuing action alerts when pundits and journalists misstate facts about immigration. Bloggers can monitor their local and national media for false information or misleading framing. Often the media ascribes to the American public a far more anti-immigrant opinion than they actually hold. It is taken as a given that the public is opposed to a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants when this is simply not true.

5. Humanize this debate by telling stories

Groups like Dreams Across America focus on telling the personal stories of immigrants. They create excellent YouTube videos that humanize immigrants and show the diversity of the roles immigrants play in communities around the country. A great strength of bloggers is the ability to personalize political issues. That approach can be applied to the immigration debate as bloggers tell their own stories of immigration and migrants in their community, be they Polish or Ecuadorian. does this on a local level .

6. Link people to action

The next step after building consensus for progressive immigration reform is for blogs to funnel their readers into organizations that are doing offline mobilization on the issue. Blogs have reported on the offline activism that immigrant rights groups have conducted but they have not been particularly involved in organizing it. Young immigrant rights activists have already successfully used Facebook to drive up attendance at protests but the larger progressive community was not really part of that movement. A diverse constituency needs to be built for progressive immigration reform so getting activists from beyond the immigrant rights movement to come out and support the cause is key.

Local blogs can take the lead in directing readers towards actions in their own communities and can build relationships with local immigrant rights groups as well. Blogs can help organize their readers to videotape protests or political forums occurring in their own communities. Part of that effort would be a continuation of watchdog work but this would also ensure that important protests are broadcast to the wider world. The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has a great clearinghouse that bloggers can use to prompt their readers to action in their state.

Progressives can learn a lot from the success of the online/offline organization Numbers USA. Numbers USA has already played a major role in developing effective anti-immigrant messaging and organizing tactics, which The New York Times reports contributed to Congress’ sidelining of any legislation that involved a path towards citizenship.

Resources for further reading:

You can download an immigration policy widget from DMI’s It will keep your readers updated on the latest immigration policy content through the perspective of its impact on the current and aspiring middle class.
Go to to set one up.

Talking points on immigration policy to strengthen and expand the American middle class

For discussions on the DREAM Act:

On why guest worker programs are problematic:

Undocumented immigrants mythbuster

Role of immigrants in the U.S. labor market:

Employers’ use of immigration status to exploit workers

Demographic statistics on immigrants

Effectiveness and cost of border enforcement:

Basic Pilot/ E-Verification No Magic Bullet

"no-match letters" to employers

National Legislative Priorities for Immigrant Workers brief by National Immigration Law Center

List of immigration reports


It is our hope that this memo sparks a larger discussion of ways that the blogosphere can engage as a force for better policy, not just electoral politics. The Drum Major Institute regards itself as a netroots think tank. We have a Netroots Advisory Council that advises DMI in making sure our materials are useful to bloggers and we continue to offer ourselves as a resource to you and your work. Please feel free to contact us at elevin (shift-2) if there is more we can be doing to facilitate your engagement on the issue of immigration. Thank you.

Elana Levin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 11:29 AM, Dec 04, 2007 in Immigration | Progressive Agenda | Progressives | The Media
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