Hours before President Donald Trump’s administration was set to send out its “deportation forces,” thousands of Bernie Sanders supporters in and around 10 major American cities received a campaign email — but it wasn’t asking for money.
“ICE raids targeting 10 cities start Sunday. Know your rights,” the subject line of a Saturday morning email read. The Sanders campaign used its campaign voter data to send out the same distress signals grassroots immigration advocacy groups typically organize around. Attached to the Sanders campaign email were two graphics, one in English and one in Spanish, with a list of immigrant rights, based on guidance from the American Civil Liberties Union.
It’s an unusual move for a presidential campaign to use its platform to do this kind of organizing, said Ruthie Epstein, ACLU’s deputy director of immigration policy. The ACLU played no role in the Sanders campaign email — nor did Epstein know it existed. (Sanders’s campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, formerly worked for the ACLU, however.)
“It’s not strictly on point when it comes to building out a presidential campaign [to use campaign data] for the purpose other than running for president,” Epstein said.
But this isn’t the first time Sanders’s team has used its email and phone lists for organizing people indirectly linked to his presidential ambitions. In May, Sanders’s campaign sent out targeted text messages and emails to supporters in California urging them to join union workers at 10 California university campuses and five hospitals during a one-day labor strike, HuffPost reported. Core to Sanders’s pitch for the White House is this message about mobilization; first to elect him as president, and then around his policy vision.
In some ways, deploying campaign email lists for broader community organizing harks back to the idea behind former President Barack Obama’s Organizing for America — which not only assembled to elect the first black president but had community organizing ambitions beyond that. OFA ultimately died out. The question, then, is if Sanders’s campaign can achieve what Obama’s did not.
Sanders campaign wants to make a point about mobilization
Last week, several reports indicated the Trump administration would be targeting 2,000 families with members who had received deportation orders starting Sunday. Then late Saturday night, 12 hours before Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids were set to begin, Trump tweeted he was delaying the operation for two weeks. Trump warned, however, if Congress didn’t produce immigration policy by then, “Deportations start!”
On Saturday, every Sanders supporter got a message, if they were thought to be in a 20-mile radius of the 10 cities that Trump’s administration said ICE would target this week.
The email was addressed from Sanders’s press secretary Belén Sisa, who is herself an undocumented immigrant under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“Multiple news outlets are reporting that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is planning deportation raids against immigrant families in Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York City, and San Francisco starting early Sunday morning,” the email, obtained by Vox, reads. “Whether or not you are an immigrant, please share this “Know Your Rights” information widely to help those who might fall victim to the cruel and inhumane policies of the Trump administration.”
This kind of “know your rights” information campaign is the first step for immigration rights groups amid reports of immigration raids.
“We had an increase in [Know Your Rights presentations] after the election, because of the level of fear in the community,” said Camila Alvarez, an attorney with the Central American Resource Center, the largest Central American immigration rights organization in the country. “Especially now, when there is news, there are a lot more confusion. The response immediately is let’s get organized, let’s plan Know Your Rights, let’s see who has capacity.”
Alvarez also noted that she hadn’t seen any campaigns get involved in this way. Sanders’s team, however, is making a point about mobilization.
“It is no longer enough to talk about issues like immigration, but we must take real action to fight back and protect our undocumented community, like we did on Saturday,” Sisa told Vox. “There isn’t much else that anybody can do other than stand up in unity.”
Bernie Sanders’s immigration policy, briefly explained
Immigration wasn’t among Sanders’s signature policy issues when he first ran for president in 2016. His record, as Dara Lind explained for Vox, has been both dovish on the rights of unauthorized immigrants, especially as workers, and hawkish on the expansion of legal immigration. He voted against a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007 that offered a path to citizenship, specifically because he said it had weak protections for guest workers. He voted in favor of the bipartisan 2013 Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration bill.
As Lind writes, “he cares a lot about the treatment of workers in the United States, whatever their legal status, and is not equally concerned with workers who aren’t yet living in the US. ... His specific [open borders] fear is of a future where there are lots of immigrant workers whose status is under their employers’ control.”
Under Trump, Sanders has shifted the focus of his immigration platform to directly address the fear the Trump administration has sowed within the immigrant community.
His 2020 presidential campaign has proposed expanding DACA and Obama’s court-blocked Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, with immediate legal status for DREAMers, and creating a path to citizenship. He’s called for restructuring ICE, and ending family separation. But he’s maintained his position against what Republicans like to decry as “open borders.”
“What we need is comprehensive immigration reform,” Sanders said at a town hall in Iowa. “If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So that is not my position.”
Ultimately, Sanders’s campaign is aimed at starting a political revolution. To do that, his campaign appears to be making grassroots organizing not directly about his candidacy, a priority.