How four volunteers reframed the immigration debate

Web of Change plenary session focuses on What Winning Looks Like

MANSONS LANDING, B.C. - They were only four volunteers — albeit one with a little more clout than the rest — but they were able to dramatically impact immigration policy in the United States.

Jake Brewer, chief strategy officer at Fission Strategy, shared his most recent campaign achievement during Web of Change’s (WoC) keynote session on What Winning Looks Like Sept 6. The annual conference convened 115 digital leaders for four-days of collaboration, connection and learning to support people on the front lines of social change. 

According to Jake, immigration was never top of mind as “a white dude from rural America,” until he met participants working on the Trail of Dreams campaign at WoC two years ago. 

It was there he learned about the advocacy campaign to see the Dream Act pass —  a nearly decade-old bill which would provide a path to legal permanent residency for young people who have been educated in the United States. 

“Through them, I really started to see how big this issue was, affecting all of our communities as Americans, across all kinds of lines, and got really into this issue,” recalls Jake.

The Dream Act died on the Senate floor several months later, but that wasn’t the biggest shock for Jake. Nearly a month later, while immigration issues continued to simmer, Jake met one of his best friends for coffee, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas, who confessed to Jake he was an "illegal alien." 

It was a reminder for Jake of how fast things could change. He and two other friends committed to helping Jose, knowing the story of a man industriously working up the ladder to become an award-winning journalist, interviewing dozens of famous people and covering the 2008 presidential campaign, could be just the story to change the immigration conversation. It was the kind of story that could turn many Americans' notion of what an "undocumented immigrant" was on its head.

They were also deeply aware that the odds were stacked against them: organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on the issue over the past decade, and progress toward comprehensive immigration reform was no further ahead, if not behind.

The group started by taking a deeper look at the stories being told about immigration, finding most focused on what people didn’t have, with even progressive organizations using the term “undocumented immigrants” as the only alternative to "illegal."

What was needed was a story that would speak to average Americans and compel them to think in new ways.

The group decided to focus on the unlikely heroes who helped Jose along the way: A Grade 9 teacher changed a trip destination so Jose could be part of it, while later in life the Washington Post HR director turned a blind eye to his residency on an employment form.   

The night before the story was set to debut on the front page of the New York Times (NYT), (it helps to have a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist work on your campaign), Jake remembers feeling panicky at the thought of “What if no-one cares?” He knew the story needed to translate into action or the group’s efforts would fail. 

The NYT debut sparked follow-up stories in papers across the world, and the group’s simultaneous release of Jose’s YouTube video attracted thousands of viewers.

Things started to move quickly. Jake says the group was invited to meet with the Associated Press managing editors, who would pass a resolution that month stating their journalists should refrain from using the word "illegal" to apply to immigrants or people.

Meanwhile, the group continued to build on the public’s engagement, creating a campaign called Define American asking people to share their stories of immigration and define what it means to be American, noting Jose’s story couldn’t be more American. People like U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senator Harry Reid and business magnate Russell Simmons, began sharing their definitions.

“No-one ever — conservative, middle, anything — ever talked about American as ‘I have citizenship papers,’” says Jake. "The conversation was all about the qualities and values of our country. And once the conversation was beyond legal versus not legal, we knew we had a big opportunity." 

Six months later, Time magazine called, saying they wanted to make Jose the story of the day. The campaign used the Define American success an opportunity to bring in stories of dozens of other young people in a position similar to Jose — culminating in a cover story with the headline "We Are Americans." On the morning the magazine hit newstands, President Barack Obama passed a resolution that would allow for undocumented young people to stay in the U.S. and work. 

Jake’s What Winning Looks Like story was one of five shared by Web of Change leaders. 

 --Axiom News