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Juan Escalante discovered that he was undocumented in 2007. While he was applying to college, his mother revealed to him that his family’s visas had expired.
“My world just kind of shrunk in perspective,” he said. “I fell into a depression and I didn’t go to school that fall.”
Escalante and his family immigrated to the United States from Caracas, Venezuela in the year 2000 after his father was granted a work visa. Working with lawyers, the Escalante family was on their way to making a permanent transition to life in Miami, Florida.
“Our lawyers said we didn’t need to renew our visas anymore, that they could get us a legal permanent residence,” said Escalante, 23. “So we didn’t renew, thinking it was the best decision we could make, but guess what? Our application was denied and our case was closed without appeal because of our lawyer’s negligence. That’s why I’m trapped in this circle. We just fell into this grey area in immigration.”
Escalante, 23, said he turned to the Internet as a way to ease his mind and answer questions regarding his immigration status.
“My parents had some of the answers but they were very reluctant to explain the gravity of the situation to me, it was as if they were ashamed—like they had failed me,” he said.
Escalante found a forum, dreamact.info, which provides resources for undocumented youth. The site planned to expand and launch a national resource center after the failure of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act that fall in 2007.
“It just seemed so captivating to me, and I said I’ll become involved and volunteer,” he said. “The mindset was to allow a space for people who come to us, anonymous or otherwise, to give them the information or provide them with some sort of avenue to provide the information with no risk and without asking any questions.”
As social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have gained prominence in the public eye, Escalante and others like him have turned to the Internet as a platform to spread immigrant rights activism and awareness. Escalante is currently a part of DreamActivist.org, an online resource network by and for undocumented youth.
“The more I got involved with it, the more I gained an appreciation for this whole idea, or notion that we are able to use technology to spread a social movement without a huge budget or without us trying to cross every state,” he said.
Escalante on online networks
The web site encourages undocumented youth to tell their story, while providing information and applications for immigration legislation such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which grants work permits to qualifying undocumented youth and allows them to remain in the United States for a limited period of time. Unlike the DREAM Act, which would provide a path towards permanent residency, DACA provides reprieve for only two years after an individual’s date of approval. After two years, individuals must apply to renew their deferred action status.
As President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators prepare a plan for immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, immigrant rights organizations are using social media as a tool to quickly connect the undocumented community on a national scale.
“We use social media very intensely,” said Celso Mireles, online strategy coordinator for United We Dream, the largest national network for undocumented youth. “One of the main things we engage people through in social media is the End Our Pain program.”
The program draws mobilization online to call attention to current deportation cases with the intent of stopping undocumented youth from being deported. The web site features a case questionnaire and application where undocumented persons detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can seek to have United We Dream take on their case.
Mireles said the program is just one example of the power of online networks. Last month, when the mother and brother of prominent immigrant activist Erika Andiola were detained by ICE, the immigrant rights community quickly mobilized online to call on the agency to release her family using Twitter hashtags #weareandiola and #somosandiola to call attention to her case. Andiola’s family members were released promptly the next day.
Mireles, who just received deferred action, added that while there was some vulnerability in sharing your immigration status online, the risks were outweighed by the benefits.
Mireles on being undocumented and unafraid
“Because she was so prominent in the DREAM movement she was able to mobilize a national network,” said Mireles. “I think without social media that would not have happened.”
“At the end of the day that the network we have built knows who you are and if something were to happen to you, that would act as a safety net should you be picked up,” said Escalante.
Escalante on Andiola and social media
Escalante added that the benefits of an online community went beyond the practical; there was a huge emotional component as well.
“A lot of times what people forget is that we use this as a coping mechanism, or at least we used to in the beginning because we didn’t know another undocumented person,” said Escalante. “We didn’t have network of support, it was actually very hard. Social media was kind of their for you.”
When Escalante first became involved with immigration rights forums and later Dream Activist, he was faced with his own dilemma on how much of his identity to share.
“In 2008 I started using my first name, in 2009 I started using my first and last name but I never alluded to the fact that I was undocumented,” he said. “By 2011 I was so sick and tired of trying to explain to people who I am, who I was and why I was affected and said you know what, it’s really time for me to let this go and face the issue with a strong face.”
“I am who I am”
“There is that fear in the beginning of using your real name,” said Mireles. “I used a pseudonym in the beginning—I used Sergio. But we realized there’s more power in really being unafraid and that means letting people know who you are.”
Escalante said his decision has made him more confident.
“It goes back to that sense of confidence in the community that people crave often because you were silent, you were sitting in the shadows and not given a seat at the table, so for us to come out as undocumented and declare our status doesn’t just empower yourself and our community but also people who look up to you and aspire to help this movement,” he said.
In 2002, Mukhtara Mai, a Pakistani woman from the village of Meerwala, was gang raped on the orders of a village council. The rape was ordered as punishment because her younger brother was said to have committed adultery with a woman from a higher-caste tribe.
Pedro Pizano, the Global Media Liaison for the Oslo Freedom Forum, said that as soon as he posted an article about Mai on his Facebook page, he was flooded with responses from all over the globe. He said by sharing posts online, women experiencing similar traumas can better identify with cases like that of Mai.
“Posting on the social media definitely drove a lot of traffic,” said Pizano.
Social media is increasingly being used as a tool in highlighting issues of women from the developing world. Through the use of photos, videos and blogs on Tumblr, Pinterest, Facebook,Twitter and other social media sites, organizations and activists are engaging faster with readers and internet surfers.
“We have Twitter accounts in Spanish and English and use these to spread news,” Pizano said. “But those 140 characters have to be backed by a link such as an article, a photo or a survey or they don’t add any value to news.”
Pedro Pizano talks discusses the power of social media
According to a Reporters Without Borders annual index of the countries where freedom of expression does not exist – such as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Pakistan and Iran – social media plays a central role by highlighting issues the mainstream media does not.
“In developing countries like Egypt and Syria, where there’s a lot of repression, it’s a powerful tool for people to reach out,” said Pizano.
A photo of ‘The Girl in the Blue Bra,’ a female protester beaten by Egyptian police during clashes in Cairo’s Tahrir Square last December, is on Pinterest, an online pinboard, where people organize and share photos of interest to them.
“When people see a powerful picture such as the girl in Egypt, it resonates with them,” said Nina Mandell, a reporter for the New York Daily News, who also covers social media. “We find out about a lot of stories in the developing world through Facebook.”
Mandell said she and her colleagues find Twitter to be the best way to find photos.
Taha Siddiqui, a features writer for the Express Tribune who covers human rights issues in Pakistan, said that at times he finds serious international issues only on tweets.
“Lots of times there are killings or violence in places like FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas), where journalists are seen tweeting about news while it never makes it to mainstream media,” Siddiqui said. “Even if it is reported through unverified sources, it makes one feel there is more to it than what is being shown.”
Twitter and Facebook are increasingly being used to engage people and generate debates on issues of social relevance. Many NGOs now tweet about social events, fundraising and emergency situations.
“The increasing popularity of Twitter and Facebook has made people contact us from the third world,” said Caroline Berger, a website and social media administrator for Equality Now, a non-profit organization that addresses discrimination against women around the world. “Even if they don’t have Facebook for assistance, they send us an email and we use our social media platforms to bring attention to issues of discrimination and women’s rights.”
The Broadway shows “The Book of Mormon” and “Chicago” couldn’t be more different on the surface. One follows two mismatched Mormons on a mission and the other tells the story of murder, greed and the luster of celebrity in the jazz age through a series of Vaudeville inspired song and dance numbers.
Yet they do have one thing in common: Facebook and Twitter.
The two productions have both taken creative approaches to appeal to theater lovers and broaden their audiences. Reaching across the footlights to connect with patrons, both shows are getting noticed for the clever application of social networking tools.
Set to open this spring, “The Book of Mormon,” a new musical by South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, as well as Tony Award winner Robert Lopez, is already making its presence known on popular social networking websites.
Freelance writer Matt Patches, 24, said his online connection with the production first began when the “The Book of Mormon” Twitter account came knocking.
“I only followed them because they followed me,” Patches said, referring to the site’s terminology for interacting with other users. “They’re really trying to push social media. I haven’t really seen others out there doing it the way that they have.”
Patches attended a special 25-minute preview performance of the production last month, after the show’s press representatives invited his news outlet, Collider, to stop by.
He said the invite was unusual and unexpected; Broadway shows rarely reach out to sites like Collider, which focuses on movies, television and tech content.
“There were some Broadway writers there that were covering their beat, but a lot of us cover humor and movies,” Patches said. “I think they’re saying to the non-theater people that ‘Hey, you can go see this show and it will be up your alley too.’”
Ian Klein, dramaturg and M.F.A. candidate at Columbia University, also attended the show preview. Moments after sharing his thoughts on his website, “The Book of Mormon” sprang into action via Twitter.
“I went home that evening and I had taken notes and everything,” Klein, 25, said. “I wrote an article and within minutes it was picked up by “The Book of Mormon” Twitter feed – I think they really appreciated the content.”
“The Book of Mormon” social media campaign has implemented a game on Facebook that allows users to perform a set of daily tasks to earn points and ultimately spread word of the production with their friends online. The top 50 “missionaries” will receive two free tickets to the final dress rehearsal of the show Feb. 23.
On the other end of the musical spectrum, the revival of “Chicago” is proving that after 14 years on Broadway, it too can benefit from social media. The production offered a performance Jan. 30 for Facebook fans, free of charge.
But there was a catch: fans had to spread word of the show’s Facebook page with 10 friends in order to gain admission to the special performance.
Despite its age, “Chicago” is still kicking its legs sky high. The production announced earlier this month that Christie Brinkley would be joining the cast as murderess Roxie Hart, a message that was heralded on both its Twitter and Facebook accounts after Brinkley herself made the announcement on “Oprah.”
Still, Klein said, even with the creative latitude older shows have through social media, they can still be at a disadvantage.
“It’s easy for new shows to say ‘Yeah, we’re young, hip and with the times,’” he said. “But with the shows that have been running a long time, they need to constantly re-evaluate their marketing campaigns and that can be hard.”