January/February 2020

Marketing

Using Social Media as an Advocacy Tool for Your Clients

Greg Siskind

Generally, when I write about using Twitter in my work, the column is per se about marketing. But this article is more about another way lawyers can use these social media—as an advocacy tool for your clients. Building up a social media following through a good marketing plan can pay dividends for some of your clients in a way lawyers might not yet appreciate. And it can indirectly help your marketing as well.

To illustrate, let me first tell you a remarkable story of a recent matter at our immigration law firm in Memphis, Tennessee. Last January, I received a knock on my office door from my colleague Johnna Main Bailey and her paralegal who had worried looks on their faces. They had a crisis on their hands and weren’t sure what to do next.

Carmen Puerto Diaz, a Honduran woman, accompanied by her husband who is a U.S. citizen, had gone to a green card interview without representation and was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) when she arrived at the local U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services office. While she was on a path to getting a green card, she was undocumented and, unbeknownst to her, she had an outstanding order of removal from when she lived in another state (she had moved and never received the paperwork). To make matters worse—much worse—she was five months into a high-risk pregnancy and was under very close medical supervision.

This isn’t a political column, so I won’t get on my soapbox, but suffice it to say, this was a pretty radical change from previous administrations. Before 2017, ICE would have issued what’s called an order of supervision and released the woman without actually arresting and detaining her. ICE had a policy of NOT detaining pregnant women until it reversed this in 2017 with a memo mandating the detaining of pregnant women and claiming it had the ability to give these detainees proper medical care.

The woman’s husband came to see us right after the arrest, and he was panic-stricken. His wife had a high stroke risk and could lose the baby and possibly her own life without proper medical attention. And being detained by ICE was the kind of high-stress situation that could bring on that sort of outcome. And we also learned that ICE was not giving the woman her hypertension medication, which she was supposed to be taking twice daily.

Given the extreme time pressure, we reviewed our options. There was no way we could get a court to quickly resolve this (it happened to be a holiday weekend). Contacting a reporter was something we considered, but we also knew we needed help immediately. Our congressman tried to help, but ICE was ignoring even him.

And then we found out that the client was placed on a bus for an eight-hour journey to a remote detention center in Louisiana.

We then decided to try out a somewhat desperate strategy. We talked to the family of the client who agreed that going public with the story was worth it. We would use a social media campaign to try to pressure ICE to release our client. And this is where years of work building up a social media following paid off. I have been on Twitter since 2008. I follow about 900 people, but I have more than 17,000 followers and am Twitter-verified (that’s the little blue check Twitter uses to show an account is of public interest and is authentic). I have about 400 Twitter-verified celebrity and reporter followers including Amy Siskind (no relation, believe it or not). Amy is an activist with about 375,000 followers and the author of The Weekly List, a website chronicling the Trump administration. She’s someone I’ve befriended online and is very savvy about online activism.

I contacted Amy and asked her for advice. She was very clear. Write a blog post explaining the situation (you can see it at http://www.visalaw.com/carmen-puerto-diaz/). And be sure to have a clear call to action—in this case we wanted as many people as possible to call the ICE detention center in Louisiana to register their objections. She then asked me to go on Twitter and write a tweet that linked to the blog post and then we would go to work to make the post go viral. I also reached out to an activist actress who follows me and who I knew would be interested in asking her millions of followers to help.

Greg Siskind @gsiskind
We’re trying to help a woman ICE just arrested at a marriage green card interview in Memphis who is 5 months pregnant in a high-risk pregnancy. They are not giving her meds and she is being sent to a detention facility 6 hours away. US citizen husband is frantic.

And viral the tweet went. The first tweet had over 1.2 million impressions with more than 7,500 people retweeting. A lot of celebrities on Twitter helped amplify the message. And the calls started. We don’t know how many people called the detention center, but it was so many that the message got through loud and clear.

As soon as Puerto Diaz arrived late in the evening, she was given medical attention and then first thing the next morning—incredibly—ICE put her in a private vehicle and had her driven all the way home. We didn’t know where she was or what was happening, and we were very worried she was being put on a plane to Honduras. Instead, about 30 minutes before midnight, we got a call that she was being dropped off at her home.

A miraculous, happy ending. And despite sidestepping reporters at the outset because of the time constraints, the case got a lot of attention after the fact from both local and national media, particularly to illustrate the inhumanity of the new policy of detaining pregnant women.

This wasn’t the first time social media played a role in our advocacy efforts. On a Thursday in 2015, I was leaked news of an Obama administration policy change that was going to cause as many as 40,000 Indian high-skilled workers to lose the ability to file for early immigration benefits. Over the course of a weekend, we had identified—largely via Twitter—a pool of about 1,500 potential plaintiffs, prepared a lawsuit, found a dozen named plaintiffs and filed the litigation on that Monday. We then held our “press conference” as a live tweet with questions pouring in over three hours. We used an online crowdfunding site to quickly raise the funds for the pro bono case.

In early 2017, we learned that Customs and Border Protection was revoking the Global Entry status of Muslim American citizens and lawful permanent residents with no obvious reason. Again, using Twitter, we identified more than three dozen doctors, accountants, high-tech executives and others who all suffered the humiliation of having their Global Entry revoked, usually with an email that simply advised that they no longer met the program requirements. That led to our filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, which was recently successfully concluded.

It helps to have a large following on social media, but it’s not critical. What’s more critical, as my case showed, is being able to line up a “coalition” of people who are connected to help you. Follow and get to know people who can help you one day when you need it. I’ve heard lawyers tell me that Twitter’s a waste of time. But then I tell them about Carmen.

Greg Siskind

Greg Siskind is an immigration lawyer and a co-author of the Lawyer’s Guide to Marketing on the Internet, Third Edition. gsiskind@visalaw.com