Got the numbers

At a time when little boxes inviting users to “retweet” or “like” a web page are everywhere, their absence is noticeable on the pages of organizations seeking tougher enforcement of immigration laws and a reduction in immigration levels.

National organizations like Numbers USA have active presences on social media websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but social media isn’t necessarily their focus on the web.

“A lot of the social media, I find to be sort of circular – a lot of people talking to each other,” Numbers USA Executive Director Roy Beck said. “What we try to do is not waste our members time talking to each other but get them talking directly to congress.”

Beck said his organization uses social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook to drive people to the organization’s website where they can take direct action on immigration issues.

“Our strength has been direct action to Congress. Congress makes the laws,” Jim Robb said. Robb is the vice president of operations of Numbers USA. He said the organization has used new technologies since it was founded as an Internet-based organization in 1996.

Beck cited the defeat of a 2007 version of the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, as a situation where the organization’s web site allowed people to respond quickly in the debate over immigration.

Both Beck and Robb touted their organization’s web-based faxing applications which makes it easy for people to contact their elected officials, even if they don’t know the name or contact information of their elected official. Robb said Numbers USA was the first advocacy organization to have such a faxing application, now a technology widely-used by advocacy organizations, when they developed it in the late 1990s.

According to Robb, members using the organization’s fax system have sent over 6 million faxes to elected officials in Washington, D.C.

Robb said his organization continues to adapt as new technologies become available. Numbers USA started by sending action alerts to their constituents by e-mail. Later they developed a Windows application that would pop-up alerts on a user’s desktop, a way of compelling people to take action without having to even check their e-mail. Robb said broader use of text messaging and mobile device applications are in development.

Ira Mehlman is the national media director of Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization formed before widespread use of the Internet. Mehlman said his organization began using Internet social media only recently but that using a combination of media was important for getting people to react to immigration issues.

“As media is becoming more diverse, you have to be able to use all the available technologies to reach your widest possible audience,” Mehlman said, “The little old lady who listens to talk radio, you might not be able to reach her through Twitter and vice-versa: the 22-year-old you can reach on Twitter might not be listening to talk radio.”

Mehlman said new technologies are important ways for people to be engaged in the democratic process. “200 and some odd years ago it was a very small population,” Mehlman said, “People could be in the village square and discuss things. This essentially provides these opportunities in the modern age when we’re a much larger country.”

Robb also said he views Numbers USA’s web site and use of social media accounts in a democratic context calling them “a national water cooler.” He said the organization’s online presence is now being used to organize members by congressional districts. This, Robb said, helps localize the organization’s broad web resources which many local organizations are unable to replicate.

Unlike the office water cooler, however, the focus of the organization’s efforts to organize members by congressional district is action, not discourse, Robb said.

“We’re not informationally oriented, we’re action oriented,” he said.

Members can use the organization’s site to compare notes and report back on actions, Robb said, adding that, in the last two months, members had logged more than 7,000 visits to local congressional offices.

Robb said the goal of developing new technologies is to decrease the response time to immigration issues. A rally, he said, can take weeks to organize, but people can respond electronically in a matter of minutes.

However, Robb said, people, not technology, are his organization’s key asset.

“The big thing we’ve got though is a willing army,” Robb said, “There’s no magic technology that us or anybody else can use that can make up for not having people. You’ve got to have voters and we’ve got them.”

Not everyone engaged in the immigration debate’s view of the Internet is as action-oriented. Steven Camarota is the Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization whose analysis typically recommends reducing levels of immigration to the United States. He said he would like to see a more careful and informed debate about immigration. Advocacy groups calling for people to take action on immigration issues, Camarota said, sometimes run the risk of polarizing the debate instead of informing it.

“It’s hard to take a complex debate and boil it down to just a few things,” Camarota said.

While the center has social media accounts, Camarota said they aren’t widely used by the organization. He said he didn’t know how social media, which often favors large numbers of short messages, has affected the ability to have a nuanced discourse about immigration but hoped it could inform the debate by pointing people to new research.

“The Internet allows you to be a real expert if you want to take the time,” he said.