This year on Valentine’s Day, a young TikTok star inspired thousands to participate in a nationwide “Day Without Immigrants” protest. This left me heartbroken.
Why? I was heartbroken because it was a marker of a decades-long battle to achieve major federal immigration reform. It has been so long that we saw intergenerational immigrant construction workers, farmworkers, and warehouse workers support this protest and movement on a relatively new social media platform.
This form of nonviolent civil disobedience attempts a general strike, in the form of choosing to not go to work or school or spend money, on one of the most economically active days of the year in order to achieve immigration reform. If this protest sounds familiar, it’s because it borrows from the playbook used in the historically massive immigrant protests of the same name during the Spring of 2006.
In comparison, the “Day Without Immigrants” protests of 2006 were broadcast by Spanish-speaking radio DJs and shared through novel technologies of the time, including text messages and Myspace. Similarly, this year’s TikTok videos under the “Day Without Immigrants” Spanish hashtag, #undiasininmigrates, amassed more than 88 million views, including a strong following on other social media platforms, all appearing to be grassroots-based.
The recent protest was supported by more than 2,600 small businesses and took place in 24 different cities from across the country, but even that was not enough to compete with 2006’s massive turnout.
The smaller turnout notwithstanding, the grassroots immigrant rights movement is alive and well. Sophia Wallace of the University of Washington and Chris Zepeda-Millán of UCLA support that notion with their study on how Latinos still partake in immigrant activism despite many years of disappointment.
Interestingly, this protest arose during a time when Democrats control both chambers of Congress and the White House, as if to say that immigrants won’t be fooled by false promises from a party that predictably flirts with immigration reform every election cycle.
And while our politicians play politics, we are organizing. My former teacher, Marshall Ganz, a Senior Lecturer at Harvard University, put it succinctly when he wrote about progressives’ missed opportunities to create long-lasting organizing power: “Right after the election—win or lose—the stage is struck, everyone goes home, and nothing survives except for the campaign debt.”
Ganz notes that progressive candidates and the consultants they hire place too much value on ad impressions and not “the building of political power.” As a result of our politicians failing us and a pandemic, organizing online by creating and sharing short form videos seemed like an option for many immigrants.
Using TikTok to achieve immigration reform may sound like a silly strategy, but most who followed this protest appeared to not use TikTok to address politicians anyway. Instead, they were addressing other immigrants. It’s an online movement by and for immigrants, where everyday people organize by talking to their family, friends, or followers.
Similar to the consultancy class that Ganz criticized for going astray, many of today’s professionalized immigrant rights organizations have played the inside game for too long. Walter J. Nicholls of the University of California, Irvine; and Justus Uitermark and Sander van Haperen, both of the University of Amsterdam, found in their analysis that professionalized organizations with a centralized and national social movement infrastructure have leadership that that is “risk-averse, unequal, and prone to internal conflicts.”
They also described that even when professionalized organizations have a grassroots department, they essentially forget about what that means once they’re in Washington, D.C. Instead, they place their values on political capital and access to the White House, to be privy to scarce insider information and have a seat at the table.
Sure, I would worry about any movement partially living on TikTok, wondering if it would be as brief as its videos.
On the other hand, I can feel a new excitement coming out of the protests from ordinary people simply stating their feelings and needs, without political calculations. A sign that there’s more work ahead is the rumbling of a bigger protest on May 1 in Washington and elsewhere — the exact anniversary of when the 2006 protests reached their climax.
As things stand, I have more hope in ordinary immigrants on TikTok to not back down or second-guess themselves when demanding a pathway to citizenship for all 11 million undocumented people in this country, than in anyone else. Imagining that this could amount to more than the status quo may be my desperation speaking.
Or, it could be the start of a new chapter in the immigration reform struggle.
Alexis Valeriano Hernandez, of Denver, is an immigrant from Mexico and an immigrant-rights organizer.
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