How the ACLU is helping people affected by the travel ban tell their stories

"Everyone here is a communicator and digital advocate," says Marcus Benigno, director of communications and media advocacy at ACLU of Southern California.

(Image via the ACLU of Oregon's Facebook page).
(Image via the ACLU of Oregon's Facebook page).

NEW YORK: The communications teams for branches of the American Civil Liberties Union sprang into action following the signing of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travel from seven Middle Eastern countries. Their first priorities: help the people affected, and help them tell their stories.

The ACLU won an initial victory when a New York judge granted a stay on the executive order for those stranded in airports the day after it was signed.

Enforcement of the executive order, which suspended the refugee program for 120 days and barred travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days, has since been halted by a Washington State federal judge. The Justice Department has appealed the ruling, and both sides will argue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday evening.

First, the ACLU has tried to get in touch with people directly affected by the ban.

"An important part of this has been trying to reach out to people affected by this ban," said Chris Ott, communications director at the ACLU of Massachusetts. "[A priority is] putting out resources and phone numbers and coordinating volunteer legal help for anyone who might need it."

The ACLU Southern California office’s attorneys are cross-trained to look for potential spokespeople or stories that could change public opinion, noted Marcus Benigno, director of communications and media advocacy at the branch.

"Everyone here is a communicator and digital advocate," he explained. "Part of my charge is to make them think about using media advocacy as a tool for the advancement of their work. We let [the plaintiffs] know that getting their stories out is an option and is really something to consider. Whenever our attorneys meet a family member of a potential plaintiff, they consider the broad optics or if it is a unique situation that could have broad implications if made public."

That’s how ACLU Southern California found one prominent spokesperson, Sara Yarjani, an Iranian citizen and student visa holder who was detained for 23 hours and then deported following the executive order. The Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail have written about her ordeal.

The organization is stressing the message that while there are individual victories, they are not the end of the fight. After reaching out to those affected and telling the stories of individuals, ACLU communicators attempt to get the word out to the general public that the organization is pushing back against the executive order. Much of that initiative takes place on social media.

"The response we've seen on social media has been unlike anything we’ve seen before," Ott said. "The news that we were going to court [on January 28] was seen by more than 2 million people on Facebook. We feel grateful for having this large audience for what the ACLU is doing and to get out the word that the ACLU is fighting."

The ACLU has filled its social media feeds with updates on various court cases across the country, personal stories of local immigrants affected by the order, and information for travelers from the seven countries. It has also broadcasted press conferences, question-and-answer sessions with lawyers, and protests on Facebook live, encouraging direct action from supporters with online petitions.

"We are developing a menu of ways in which we do communications work that goes beyond traditional avenue of the press," Benigno said. "The tools of digital marketing and digital advocacy give us that direct line to the public. Any of our work done at policy level can only be reinforced by the ground swell on the people power level."

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