Group pushes border fence bill

Among the voices in the rancorous debate about how to curb illegal immigration in the US is Let Freedom Ring, a nonprofit conservative advocacy group.

PR team: Let Freedom Ring (West Chester, PA) and Shirley & Bannister Public Affairs (Washington)
Campaign: We Need a Fence
Duration: August 2005 to July 2006
Budget: $400,000

Among the voices in the rancorous debate about how to curb illegal immigration in the US is Let Freedom Ring, a nonprofit conservative advocacy group.

As a solution, the organization launched an effort seeking government approval for a nearly 700-mile-long fence to be built in five sections along the 1,951-mile border between the US and Mexico. The fence would be approximately 50 yards wide, employ motion-detection equipment, include some 200 entry points for legal immigration, and cost about $8 billion to build.

Opponents of building such a fence have compared it to the Berlin Wall, declaring it a mean-spirited symbol of American jingoism and not likely to be effective in curbing illegal immigration anyway.

Let Freedom Ring, which is funded through private donations, emphasized its support for legal immigration, characterizing its push to build a fence as motivated not by racism or isolationism, but simply as a matter of protecting national security, stopping drug and human trafficking, and curbing the spread of communicable diseases.

Colin Hanna, president of Let Freedom Ring, says the campaign employed an "outside-inside" strategy, using earned media - the "outside" portion of the strategy - to demonstrate the importance of the issue in its direct, "inside" lobbying of lawmakers.

Hanna made 25 cable TV news appearances, among them MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN, and some 200 talk radio appearances, as well as wrote half a dozen Op-Ed pieces.

"I went to our donors and said, 'Give me a couple hundred thousand dollars, and I'll earn $2 million worth of earned media,'" Hanna says.

Outreach, assisted by Shirley & Bannister, also included cable TV advertising, the Web site, direct lobbying of about 50 key lawmakers, and meetings with public policy groups, such as the Heritage Foundation.

Congress approved the Secure Fence Act of 2006, and President George W. Bush signed off on it in late October. The fence lacks full funding at the moment, with a previously passed appropriations bill allocating about $900,000 for border security.

The Democratic takeover of Congress does put the fence's construction in jeopardy, however. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), expected to chair the House Homeland Security Committee in the 110th Congress, has said he plans to "revisit" the issue of immigration reform and could advocate doing away with the fence completely or push for legislation that, among other options, builds a "virtual" fence using unmanned aircraft, motion detectors, and other automated surveillance.

"I think it is profoundly arrogant of [Thompson] to ignore the passed legislation and ignore the will of the American people," says Hanna, who will continue the outside-inside strategy. "This is by no means a project that is over. To quote John Paul Jones, 'I have not yet begun to fight.'"

PRWeek's View
Some critics may question the effectiveness, cost, or symbolism of a fence in keeping out illegal immigrants, but clearly the campaign had success in swaying lawmakers because the bill was signed into law. It reached out to important TV and radio outlets to garner public support, reflecting a trend in lobbying toward combining media and other forms of public outreach with direct lobbying to generate constituent support and activism, and to convey to lawmakers the level of attention paid to the issue. But the ultimate success remains to be seen: Will the project get adequate funding, or will it be eliminated completely?

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