A few hours ago, Charlene D’Cruz and Kim Hunter, immigration attorneys working for Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG) Foundation as Project Corazon border rights fellows, reached out to let me know that they were headed to the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas, in an attempt to save the life of a critically ill seven-year-old girl living in Matamoros, Mexico. This would be their fourth attempt this week.
The girl and her mother were in Matamoros due to the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a program implemented by the Trump administration in January 2019. Under MPP, more than 50,000 migrants have been forced to wait in Mexico while their asylum cases are pending, most of them living in dangerous border towns with extremely limited resources. L4GG attorneys had already made three attempts to convince U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to allow the girl into the United States to receive medical care; volunteer doctors on the ground in Matamoros had evaluated her and determined she was at immediate risk of sepsis and death if not permitted entry into the United States.
A Social Media Campaign to Save A Child’s Life
The situation was desperate. I posted on Facebook and Twitter, on my own profile and in various lawyers’ groups, asking friends and supporters to call the port director and demand that the child and her mother be allowed into the United States. Just a few minutes later, I began receiving Facebook messages from people who’d called the port director’s office: “they say the situation is being handled”; “they’re asking if the girl is on the bridge right now”; “I got a phone number of someone for your attorneys to call.” I shared this information with the border rights fellows on the ground in Matamoros, and they brought the girl and her mother back to the bridge.
It worked. The critically ill seven-year-old girl and her mother were paroled into the United States, where they will have access to medical care and hygienic living conditions. Hopefully, this will be enough to save the child’s life.
While this may seem like a simple story with a hopeful (if not happy) ending, the reality of what it took to get to this point is more complex. It required, among other things: (1) multiple activists willing to make a phone call based on a social media post from someone they’d never met in person and (2) two experienced immigration lawyers on the ground at the Brownsville/Matamoros bridge, ready to advocate on behalf of asylum seekers. As it turns out, social media made both of these things possible.
Without social media, L4GG wouldn’t exist, which means Project Corazon (L4GG’s immigrants’ rights program, launched in July 2018) wouldn’t exist. If Project Corazon didn’t exist, our border rights fellows wouldn’t have been hired, which means they wouldn’t have been in Matamoros at the exact time their help was needed. I also wouldn’t have had a network of lawyers and supporters ready to make phone calls on a moment’s notice. Let me explain.
A Catalyst for Lawyers’ Mass Mobilization Through Social Media
On November 9, 2016, I went online to formulate a response to the results of the U.S. presidential election that had taken place the day before. My feelings did not spring from partisanship but rather a concern for the strength of the rule of law in our country and the human rights of immigrants and others who might become scapegoats.
Scattered among tens of thousands of posts I saw that morning across a variety of groups and feeds, something grabbed my attention: lawyers. There were hundreds of posts from lawyers proposing specific action items and offering to help with whatever needed to be done—but those posts were unconnected to one another and constantly getting pushed further and further down the feed. Each one seemed like a missed opportunity.
In an attempt to bring these disconnected ideas together and begin a more productive conversation, I created what I believed would be a small Facebook group for lawyers interested in putting their knowledge and skills to work in defense of the rule of law, human rights, and government accountability. The response was immediate and overwhelming. Within 72 hours, more than 60,000 lawyers had joined the group. By the end of 2016, more than 125,000 lawyers (approximately 10 percent of attorneys in the United States) had joined.
A massive mobilization of lawyers on social media was clearly underway. The question was whether that mobilization could be leveraged into meaningful action. To help answer that question, I conducted an online survey in November/December 2016, which was ultimately completed by nearly 15,000 lawyers, law students, and other legal professionals from every state in the country. Survey respondents were from a wide range of practice areas, with the largest concentrations in litigation (18 percent), criminal law (9 percent), corporate law (8 percent), family law (5 percent), and immigration law (5 percent). Approximately 50 percent were in private practice, with others worked in government (18 percent), nonprofits (16 percent), or education (6 percent). The majority indicated the election had motivated them to find new ways to use their legal skills in defense of democratic institutions and individual rights.
One key data point stood out immediately: 99 percent of survey respondents said they were interested in moving beyond social media conversations into real-world volunteerism and advocacy work (e.g., providing pro bono legal services, conducting legal research, joining an issue-based committee or working group, etc.). For the lawyers participating in this movement, social media was a means to an end, a platform to facilitate real-world action.
Social media brought 125,000 lawyers together in a single Facebook group, and that group ultimately became L4GG and the L4GG Foundation, an organization that in 2019 helped connect more than 6,000 asylum seekers with free legal services. But L4GG is just one of many organizations and individuals using social media to coordinate rapid legal response and advocacy efforts. The power of social media as a platform to quickly mobilize lawyers at a massive scale has been tested relentlessly over the past few years, particularly in response to changes in immigration policies, and organizers are proving what a difference social media can make.
The Power of Social Media as a Platform for Mobilization
On January 27, 2017, shortly after his inauguration, President Trump announced a travel ban focused on preventing immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The next day, nearly 800 lawyers joined a conference call to plan an immediate response. By the end of the following day, dozens of organizations had issued calls to action online and via e-mail, resulting in hundreds (if not thousands) of lawyers reporting for duty at airports across the country to offer legal support. A network of Facebook groups evolved into a hub for information and coordination, allowing interested volunteers to quickly get involved in efforts such as locating translators, pulling together necessary resources, and connecting experienced mentors to non-immigration lawyers.
Later that year, when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the rescission of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), putting more than 800,000 “Dreamers” at risk of deportation, social media and e-mail were used to recruit more than 5,500 lawyers interested in volunteering at DACA renewal clinics. Organizers pulled together an online training program (led by immigration lawyer Ruben Reyes) and trained more than 1,500 lawyers to assist with DACA renewal applications in just 72 hours. A network of volunteer coordinators helped create a “DACA Clinic Map,” where volunteer lawyers could connect with clinic organizers and offer assistance.
In June 2018, when news began to spread about the systemic separation of asylum-seeking families at our southern border, social media again became a vehicle for lawyers and activists to mobilize. Erin Albanese, a solo attorney with a business and nonprofit law practice in the Seattle, Washington, area, cofounded a Facebook group called Lawyer Moms of America, which now has more than 15,000 members. The group has organized nationwide advocacy actions and raised approximately $150,000 for legal aid and other direct help for migrants and refugees. Albanese also cofounded the Washington Immigrant Defense Network (WIDEN) with Tahmina Watson, an immigration attorney whom she met through Facebook. Watson had previously founded the Washington State Response Committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, as well as Airport Lawyer, an online tool designed to connect immigrant families in need of assistance with volunteer lawyers who can help.
In June 2019, about six months after the MPP government program was implemented and it was clear that tens of thousands of asylum seekers would be unable to access legal counsel in the United States as a result, Taylor Levy (an immigration attorney based in El Paso, Texas) set up a Facebook group for lawyers handling MPP cases. In the group, she shared an MPP practice advisory she had drafted and invited others to share relevant information, templates, and answers to frequently asked questions. More than 900 immigration lawyers are now part of the group and have come to rely on it as a valuable resource.
Innovative Legal Organizing on Social Media
While many of the examples above focus on immigration law, there are countless other examples of social media as a platform for lawyers to organize and mobilize. Todd Lewis, a solo practitioner in Kentucky, used social media to start a local pro bono expungement program for indigent clients. With the help of a grant from the state bar foundation, the program has provided pro bono legal services to approximately 100 clients. Another attorney, Melissa Holtzer-Jonas, started a Facebook group that coordinated fundraising efforts, running a series of small fundraisers for organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Gideon’s Promise Home, National Diaper Bank Network, Planned Parenthood, and others. Grace Elaine Shemwell, whose grandfather died of Alzheimer’s disease when she was in law school, connected with advocates on Twitter and Facebook and now volunteers with them in an effort to enact legislation to increase National Institutes of Health research funding and change the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services code. Shemwell says, “it’s been incredibly fulfilling.”
In November 2017, L4GG launched a climate change program, mobilizing hundreds of volunteer lawyers to support the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 program, which helps cities make the commitment to switch to 100 percent renewable energy. Teams of attorneys, each team led by a volunteer with environmental law experience, worked to research and draft “state profile” documents providing legal guidance to municipalities considering the transition to renewable energy.
E. David Gallermo, a solo practitioner focused primarily on residential real estate closings, was one of many attorneys who raced to the nearest airport in the wake of the travel ban in January 2017 to do whatever he could to help. A few months later, thanks to connections made on social media, he began working with a group preparing standby guardianships and powers of attorney for undocumented residents with property and/or U.S. citizen children. As he puts it, “I can’t begin to tell you how amazing it felt to be doing something practical, to be helping vulnerable people, to be performing acts of kindness . . . and it was all pro bono. . . . I didn’t do it for the money. I did it because it was the right thing to do.”
Social Media Tips, Limitations, and Potential Pitfalls
Although social media has become a critical platform for lawyers to organize, coordinate, and mobilize, it also has its limitations and pitfalls. It’s important to keep the following things in mind, particularly for lawyers who are new to social media or just beginning to explore the possibilities:
Social media is never private. Don’t be fooled by labels such as “secret group” or “private messages.” Assume anything and everything you post on social media is public, regardless of the privacy settings associated with your account or online groups. Even with the most restrictive privacy settings enabled, anyone can take a screenshot of anything you post and share it publicly.
Do your research before taking action. Consider the source of any information you come across. If you’re about to take action based on a particular post or comment, verify it first. If you have an idea for a project or program, check to see if another organization or group of attorneys is already working on something similar. Although it can be tempting to move quickly on social media, it’s worth slowing down for a moment to be thoughtful before taking action.
Social media posts are no substitute for meaningful action. Don’t be fooled. Liking, sharing, posting, or complaining on social media isn’t a substitute for taking action in the real world. It’s important to raise awareness and advocate for causes you believe in, but screaming into an echo chamber isn’t likely to accomplish much. If you are outraged, inspired, or otherwise moved by something you come across on social media, look for ways to convert that energy into meaningful actions, such as taking a pro bono case, contacting your members of Congress, participating in a protest or advocacy action, running for office, supporting candidates for public office, or volunteering with an organization whose work you admire. As L4GG member Haleh Shahmohammadi Kimelman recently shared, “I used to leave the politics to others, and I was never involved. I realized on election night 2016 that every voice counts, every effort matters, and if I don’t do anything about it, I have no right to complain.”
Making a Difference
As attorneys, we have valuable skills, knowledge, and expertise that can be used to make a real difference in the world, and now we have the power of social media at our fingertips. Let’s use it wisely.
Published in GPSolo, Volume 37, Number 1, January/February 2020. © 2020 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.