Feb 24, 2015 · 5 minutes

Of all the varieties of slacktivism, surely Twitter slacktivism is the slackest. I've written for years about my opposition to the whole sorry spectacle. The empty gesture of retweeting a hashtag or -- Jesus wept -- changing the color of one's avatar in "support" of schoolgirls abducted in Nigeria or the persecution of protesters in Iran. The act of "raising awareness" of precisely nothing more than one's own inability to meaningfully influence world events.

My relatively modest number of Twitter followers might, therefore, have been surprised to see the appearance of a small blue handprint on my avatar earlier this week.

I can explain...

The hand is the logo of Define American, the immigration reform group led by Jose Antonio Vargas. In 2001, Vargas "came out" as an undocumented American on the cover of New York Times Magazine. In that story he explained how he had been sent to American as a child to live with his grandparents. It was only when he turned 16 and tried to obtain a drivers license that he discovered his "green card" was in fact a forgery and that he was one of the millions of immigrants in America without the proper documentation. Whereas most undocumented immigrants do everything they can to avoid public attention, Vargas went on to become a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post. In 2008 he won a Pulitzer prize for coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.

Since coming out to the Times, and expanding on his story in the documentary "Documented" (on Netfix now), Vargas has worked to raise awareness of the struggles facing the millions of immigrants who mow our lawns, cook our meals, win our Pulitzers, and start our tech companies but who, for any number of reasons, are not legally able to become American citizens.

The campaign to improve the lot of undocumented Americans has scored a number of victories recently. In California an undocumented immigrant can now get a driver's license and healthcare. In January alone, the state issued 59,000 new licenses under the new law -- with 1.4 million expected to be issued in the next three years. In Nevada, a proposed new law will allow undocumented educators to obtain a teaching license in the state. And then, of course, came President Obama's executive action on immigration, which would protect 4.3 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.


As you've likely read, a Texas federal judge has blocked the President's executive action on the basis that Obama lacks the authority to make such sweeping changes to American immigration policy. After no small amount of dithering, The White House is now challenging the ruling. Until the fight is resolved, one way or another, those 4.3 million immigrants are back in limbo.

The tech industry has long been at the vanguard of immigration reform: So many tech companies are built by immigrants that there is a constant call from Silicon Valley for more H1B visas to be issued. Those of us blessed with slightly fancier CVs, or slightly costlier lawyers, are able to get "extraordinary ability" visas like the O1. These kinds of visas often provide a path to permanent residence, and then citizenship. But the kind of immigration reform that helps tech workers often does little for those workers who came here illegally, or were brought here before they were old enough to work.

Recently, thanks to lobbying from people like Vargas, tech immigrations groups like Fwd.us have broadened the tech industry's initial demand for additional "skilled worker" visas into a call for more comprehensive overhaul of US immigration policy -- a rising tide, and all that. Increasingly, protecting and bolstering the rights of undocumented Americans is being recognized as a civil rights issue, like racial equality and gay rights before it.

And yet, as recent events have shown, there is still a very, very long way to go if America is to get back to its founding "give me your tired and huddled masses" principles. One major problem is the relative invisibility of undocumented immigrants: If you're trying to avoid being deported, or having your children thrown out of the only country they've ever called home, it takes an unfathomable amount of courage to follow Vargas' lead and start publicly discussing the challenges you face. For that reason, those of us lucky enough to have (relatively speaking) waltzed right through the US immigration system have an absolute moral obligation to speak out in favor of those who are being brutalized by that same system.

The truth is, US Citizenship and Immigration Services is scary as all hell -- a branch of the Department of Homeland Security with the power to tear apart families or destroy careers at the click of a button. Piss them off sufficiently and you can find yourself banned from the US for a decade, or even a lifetime. Once you've convinced them to let you in, and let you stay, why on earth would you want to do something silly like start complaining about the rights of immigrants who are way, way less fortunate than yourself?

The answer, of course, is because it's the right thing to do. Those of us who are lucky enough to be here legally should be the ones campaigning most aggressively for the millions of undocumented immigrants who have been here far longer than us, and in many cases work infinitely harder than us, and yet are living in constant fear of that knock at the front door. Perhaps if American voters realized how many first or second generation immigrants they encounter every single day then the idea of affording basic rights to those who are already here would seem as natural as affording rights to any other group living in this country.

Over the next few months, Sarah and I are planning to commission a whole series of articles about immigration in America. Some of them will focus on the tech industry' needs, but many will look at the wider issue of immigration in America. Again, we need to create a rising tide. Jose Antonio Vargas will be appearing on stage with Sarah at Pandoland in Nashville in June and we're hoping to host a number of break-out conversations about immigration at the event. Vargas has just announced his own partnership with the LA Times on a project called #EmergingUS, but I'm still hoping we can convince Jose to write a guest post for us here on Pando.

While we're figuring all of those things out, adding a badge to my Twitter avatar that says "I wasn't born here" is an embarrassingly easy first step. It's also the first time that "raising awareness" on Twitter seems like it might actually have a point. I hope other Pando readers who have made it through the US immigration maze will do the same. This is a critical time for America's millions of undocumented immigrants and the very least the rest of us can do is stand with them.

[Illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]