Luring Undocumented Immigrants Out of the Shadows—Using Facebook

What's to come?
Sept. 18 2012 12:06 PM

Status Update

How activists are using technology to convince young undocumented immigrants to apply for the Deferred Action program.

An orientation class for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program
An orientation class for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program applicants in Los Angeles in August

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

Given the images of people lining up in cities across the country to attend workshops on  the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for DREAM Act-eligible kids—which allows teenagers and young adults who were brought to the United States illegally as children to remain in the country without fear of deportation—you might think that spreading the word about this opportunity is akin to hawking tickets to a Justin Bieber concert. That is, even a rumor will make the masses come running.

But figures released by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services show that at this point, just 82,000 immigrants, a small fraction of the 1.2 million estimated to be currently eligible for the program, signed up. According to Luis Arbulu, a former Google executive who has served as an entrepreneur-in-residence for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration, the kids who queued on Aug. 15—as soon as government started accepting applications—are the super motivated. “They are the ones,” he says, “who get their college applications in on the first day.”

But what about the hundreds of thousands of other teenagers and young adults? For that, immigrant advocacy groups are gearing up for a mobile technology campaign that would impress the savviest of Madison Avenue’s social media mavens. Advocates will leverage texts, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, because the bulk of those eligible for Deferred Action are between the ages of 15 and 31, arrived before they turned 16, and have spent at least five years in the United States.

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It doesn’t begin and end with the trendiest technology, though, because immigrant activists’ target crowd goes beyond the young and Internet-savvy. The executive order is pretty expansive: While the DREAM Act legislation that Congress voted down several times would have required immigrants to have completed at least two years of college or enlisted in the military, the president’s initiative includes residents who have obtained a GED or are in some kind of vocational training. As a result, according to a National Agricultural Workers Survey, some 54,000 farm workers could qualify if they find a way to get into a classroom. This is a group that isn’t on Facebook, at least not every day, so activists will need to find other ways to reach them.

In addition, about one-quarter of the immigrants who could take advantage of the deferred action can't yet, because of the “at least 15” mandate—some who might be eligible in the future are as young as 5. So getting it on the radar of their parents and other "influencers" in their lives is vital. This assumes, of course, that the Deferred Action program will continue in the years ahead, which isn’t a guarantee. It doesn’t provide lawful status but rather a two-year reprieve, and subsequent administrations could revoke it.

That said, there is a real payoff from registering: Successful applicants won’t just be free (for now) from perpetual threat of getting kicked out of the country, but they will also receive permits to work in the United States. In some states, too, those who register will be eligible for in-state tuition and drivers’ licenses.

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