Texting for Reform: SMS, Immigration and Civil Rights

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Jan 19, 2010

In December 2009, US Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D – Illinois) introduced the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity (CIR ASAP) Act of 2009 in the American House of Representatives. The bill is a major step in overhauling the American immigration system, providing greater protection for immigrants while ensuring that employers use fair and legal hiring practices.

As the legislative debate about this hot-button issue heats up, interest groups are increasing their advocacy to protect the rights of both documented and undocumented immigrants. With reform on so many people’s minds, two organizations have been using mobile technology to spread the word.

FIRM Text Alert Action Network: An SMS 'Call to Action'

Want to stay up-to-date on the latest events and ways to help push along immigration reform? This is the question that the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) asks.  FIRM is a campaign of the Center for Community Change and Reform Immigration FOR America that lets users subscribe to their text message alert network by texting the word “justice” (or “justicia” for Spanish-language alerts) to short code 69866. Subscribers receive text messages that alert them to legislative developments, local events, and breaking news along with information about how to enact change. 

Rep. Gutierrez’s CIR ASAP legislation was a rallying point for FIRM that attracted a large response. FIRM texted its subscribers and asked them to call their politicians in Washington to express support for the bill – and more than 28,000 people responded to the challenge. “We overloaded the switchboard at Congress,” said Reform Immigration FOR America online director John Brian McCarthy in an interview with MobileActive.org.

In November 2009, FIRM wanted to host house parties around the country in order to raise awareness and support for Gutierrez’s upcoming immigration legislation. FIRM first targeted its “super-activists” (the top 15% of subscribers who responded most frequently to calls for action) by texting them requests to host local house parties. Anticipating roughly one hundred or so responses, McCarthy was surprised when FIRM received closer to 1200 people offering to host the parties. The next week, FIRM sent a mass text to the rest of its subscriber list. These users texted their zip code to find a local party, and then texted “attend” to register for the event. “It was a great way to reach people who may not have had Internet or found out otherwise,” said McCarthy, adding that there ended up being over 1000 parties across the country to raise support for comprehensive immigration reform. He noted that more than half of the attendees came from the Text Alert Action Network list.

The Text Alert Action Network started in January 2009, but really took off in June 2009, according to McCarthy. The messages are strictly action alerts with each text encouraging subscribers to take an active role in immigration reform by calling politicians or mobilizing support groups. It currently has over 82,000 subscribers and runs on the Mobile Commons platform. McCarthy said that text messaging over Mobile Commons is the most financially feasible way for the campaign to directly reach such a large number of users, and that the immediacy of a text message is ideal for the action-oriented nature of the campaign.

Much of the Text Alert Action Network’s promotion comes through word-of-mouth. After the success of the December call to action for the CIR ASAP bill, users who called their local politicians received thank-you messages, and encouragement to forward the alert on to five friends. The organization saw their numbers jump by nearly six thousand due to these direct forwards. “Our best recruiters are our members,” said McCarthy. 

FIRM strives to send alerts only when they are directly actionable. McCarthy said that a lot of thought goes into each text: “The real questions we ask ourselves each time are – Is this worth the 15 cents it might cost to our subscribers? Is it worth the time it takes for someone to open his or her phone to read the message? What is the direct value? That’s how we decide to send out a message – only if it’s worth it.”

Somos America: Raising Awareness Through SMS

Another organization using SMS for immigration reform and civil rights awareness is Somos America, a volunteer-run organization in Arizona. Somos America focuses on mobilizing people for social justice and promoting equal rights for immigrant communities. The organization uses SMS to alert members about the Maricopa County sheriff’s department’s arrest sweeps, which they believe unfairly target immigrant communities. According to Somos America, these raids are thinly veiled attempts to round up undocumented immigrants, and constitute racial profiling.  

Says Linda Brown, vice-president of Somos America, “We were just calling each other to say ‘there’s a raid here, or a raid there’ and email wasn’t fast enough.” The organization felt that raids needed to be documented in order to protect the rights of those being targeted. Text messages were the best way for members to stay connected, and also to easily pass along news in order to quickly mobilize. 

The text messages are sent in a chain system – the original texts go out to a core group of around 100 activists, and those members can forward the text messages on to advocacy groups or people who may be affected by the raids. “It all starts with the text message network – when you get a text on a raid, it’s a 'drop-everything' moment,” says Brown.

The volunteer-run site relies on each user to forward on the text messages using his or her personal phone plan service, and the number of people reached by each message varies depending on the rate of forwards. Says Brown, “I think what we’re doing is pretty gutsy.” 

Anne-Ryan Heatwole is a writer for MobileActive.org

Photo credit Anne-Ryan Heatwole


Texting for Reform: SMS, Immigration and Civil Rights data sheet 4528 Views
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SMS is Democracy in Action

This is another heartening description of how technology such as SMS can assist in the democratic process. Most voters can now afford SMS and text plans are available to suit most budgets, so that communication can flow more easily and across demographics to both guage and reflect constituent preferences on a wide range of political movements. This is good news indeed, and we must ensure that it remains available to the widest possible population. Senator Powell has advocated such digital communications for many years now; he is an example to us all.

Texting for Reform


Very interesting article Anneryan. SMS is beginning to be used in some very exciting ways in the political arena. In the U.S. we will soon begin to see text messaging technology used more frequently to collect public information by both private and government institutions. The keys to public adoption of these SMS campaigns will lie in the ease of use and flexibility of the solutions. At Globaltel Media we're adapted our SMS messaging solutions to provide a completely customizable platform for organizations to build these types of campaigns. To provide the most successful results, it is important that these campaigns allow users to text information back in freehand, instead of just specific key words. This enables organizations to receive extremely accurate information in  real-time, and in turn act on it accordingly to provide the best approaches to reform. Thanks again for the post!


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