Education on Wheels - How a Mobile Billboard Opened Discussion...

By Craig Nelsen
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 11, Number 3 (Spring 2001)
Issue theme: "George W. Bush, last Republican president? And does it matter?"
http://www.thesocialcontract.com/artman2/publish/tsc1103/article_970.shtml



Early in the pre-dawn darkness of a morning in mid-November 1999, a pickup truck bearing New York plates and towing an unusual-looking trailer pulled up and parked across the street from the Town Hall in Sanborneville, New Hampshire. It was the political primary season and, in a few hours, presidential hopeful Senator John McCain would be addressing a crowd of locals and national media in this typical New England town.

We got out of the pickup and walked back to the trailer behind us. Mounted on the trailer was an A-shaped frame that stood ten feet high and was sixteen feet long. The A-frame itself was a skeleton of pipes on which large signs could be mounted.

This was the maiden voyage of the billboard on wheels which would come to be known as our "Truthmobile."

As the town slept, we wrestled to put up the vinyl which was stiff and cold and made unwieldy by the wind and sleet. Finally we had our signs mounted, one on each side of the A-frame. In large white letters on a bright red background the signs read: "Immigration is doubling U.S. population in your child's lifetime." Below it gave the source, the U.S. Census Bureau, and our website address: www.projectUSA.org.

After daybreak, McCain's "Straight Talk Express" campaign bus arrived and parked right behind us. The Senator went in, gave a speech, and then took questions from the audience. One local woman in the audience, with whom we had been speaking before McCain's appearance, expressed her view that immigrants should learn English (reinforcing the view expressed in these pages by K. C. McAlpin that "language is the entry-point for the immigration debate").1

"Regarding that sign outside," the Senator answered the woman, "I want to make it clear I do not support illegal immigration but I am unalterably opposed to reducing current levels of legal immigration."

We were ecstatic. On our first try we had successfully inserted the very important issue of immigration into the presidential campaign.

Over the next several months we took the Truthmobile to dozens of candidates' appearances (and college campuses) in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Michigan. (To watch a humorous video of George W. Bush "answering" a question on immigration I asked him at a high school in New Hampshire, visit www.vdare.com.)

Everywhere we went we discovered that, while the campaigners themselves weren't especially happy to see us show up, the local citizenry was very supportive of our message and our efforts. While we were threatened twice with arrest by the Secret Service at Al Gore events, the local police would wink and point out the best place to set up our signs - and even some of the Secret Service agents gave us words of encouragement sotto voce.

There didn't seem to be a major difference in the reaction to our mobile billboard between Republican and Democrat events, but Republican audiences did seem to be noticeably less likely to link our immigration information to race. It is possible that in the cross-party support for our position on limiting immigration lies a key to the future of American policy.

In the spring of 2000 we set up the Truthmobile at a Republican Party state convention in Grand Rapids, Michigan, featuring then-senator Spencer Abraham, an open borders extremist who chaired the immigration sub-committee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Conventioneers - presumably party stalwarts - when questioned about the senator's position on immigration, said privately that, while they liked the senator on other issues, they disagreed with him on immigration.

Throughout the primary season, and later in Michigan in the weeks leading up to the November election, in dozens of radio interviews and in conversations with reporters, college students, and just plain folks, the quiet and general consensus was that current levels of immigration are too high - particularly when people heard the numbers.

Unfortunately, a taboo associated with race exists around the immigration issue that makes it very difficult for Americans to discuss any change in policy. For many Americans, including Americans in the media, immigration is bound up with the skin color of those entering the country. This prevents much-needed discussion and public awareness of the sheer numbers coming in.

Our experience with the Truthmobile indicates that if the immigration issue can be raised to a prominent place in the national dialogue, the force of public opinion will reinforce our position that immigration should no longer be adding significantly to the population of the United States - that our country needs to close the book on the immigration part of our history. We found that it is not that our position is unpopular, it just simply isn't mentioned.

Part of the value of our Truthmobile is that it helps break the taboo - it opens up public debate. A big red billboard on wheels is hard to ignore and often excites comment. And even though our slogans focus strictly on the numbers, they are routinely attacked - by ethnic identity activists, by politicians, and sometimes by the press - as "racist." The publicity and debate generated by the Truthmobile helps "slay the dragon" by illustrating the absurdity of our opponents' position, since our slogans have nothing to do with race.

Our experiences in Michigan bear this out. During the heat of the last election, in South Lyon, Michigan, a small businessman, after reading about us in the newspaper, contacted us and offered to allow us to park the Truthmobile on his property, which was situated on a well-traveled street. After the board was set up, a single caller complained to the local zoning officer that the sign was "racist." The frightened officer immediately began an expensive ticketing blitz that quickly racked up thousands of dollars in fines. (The officer clearly overreacted, and when the case went to court several months later, the judge reduced the fine to just $315 for exceeding size limits.)

Meanwhile, in the week leading up to the election, the controversy surrounding the Truthmobile and the tickets it was receiving resulted in news articles, evening news stories, and interviews on Michigan radio stations - publicity worth far more than a few hundred dollars in fines. The publicity generated helped raise the issue of immigration in the public consciousness just before the election - an election that featured Senator Abraham as a candidate who had been effectively linked to mass immigration through the advertising efforts of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, MichImPac, and others.

While there is no formal data on what effect this controversy had in the election, the senator's polls plummeted in the last weeks of the campaign from what had been a double-digit lead, and he ended up losing the election. The issue, according to anecdotal evidence, was widely discussed among the "politically active" and "lesser disseminators" in the Michigan citizenry. For example, Tom Moody of Farmington, one of our Michigan supporters, told us that months after the election his wife was riding in a car with a co-worker at her new job and, out of the blue, not knowing her position on immigration policy, he said, "Remember that sign about immigration in South Lyon? I don't think that was racist."

K. C. McAlpin has pointed out in The Social Contract1 that Americans feel their culture is under attack. And he is right. Unfortunately, the easy confusion of race and culture has disarmed Americans, leaving them without the language to express their unease with an immigration policy that now has us growing at a faster rate than China as our commonality slowly erodes.

The great nineteenth century philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville claimed that public opinion is sovereign in the United States. We agree and feel the kind of citizen activism the Truthmobile represents can have a strong and important influence on public opinion and immigration policy. Grassroots activism like that represented by the Truthmobile seems to "free" public opinion to express its unease while at the same time refining the arguments in the debate.

Our efforts continue. This past March 31, the Truthmobile made an appearance at an event at Simpson College near Des Moines, Iowa. The event was called "Immigration: Our Bridge to the Future" and featured workshops with titles including "Is There Hope for the Undocumented Worker?," "The Response of Local Churches to Sojourners,"2 "We Are All Immigrants," and "Iowa Lays Out the Welcome Mat."

Participants included the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, the Iowa Division of Latino Affairs, the Immigrant Rights Project for the American Friends Service Committee, and various professors.

A small group of six concerned Iowans set up the Truthmobile at 9:00 a.m. in a parking lot at the entrance to the hall in which the workshops were being held and spent the next seven hours handing out literature and being interviewed by newspaper and television reporters.

At 4:00 p.m., Iowa governor Tom Vilsak addressed the conferees. (Vowing to turn Iowa into a new Ellis Island, Governor Vilsak recently made national news for suggesting that Iowa place itself above federal immigration law and be exempted from U.S. limits on mass immigration. He has since backed off that position in the face of criticism and ridicule.)

The small group of mass immigration dissenters went inside the hall and listened to the governor give a speech on the moral duty of Americans to endure mass immigration. Afterward, the governor took questions from the audience and Jay Gardner, a grassroots activist, asked a question about the wisdom of mass immigration after first pointing out that he didn't want to hear the old canard about being "anti-immigrant" since his wife is, in fact, a Guatemalan immigrant. He noted that he and many other Americans are anti-immigration, not anti-immigrant. That important distinction was broadcast on at least one television station in Des Moines that evening.

The governor was visibly displeased, especially when the next questioner, a Hispanic female attorney, also raised the objection that current, record-breaking mass immigration is hurting recent immigrants most.

After that, the governor took no more questions, the Iowa crew disbanded, and the Truthmobile was towed to Mason City, Iowa, a town that has been declared a special immigrant zone by the governor. The Truthmobile has been set up there on private property next to a busy highway.

We feel confident that this type of citizen activism is very constructive. It is raising the importance of the issue in the minds of average Iowans while breaking the taboo against talking about immigration. Plus it is getting an important statistic out there (with the help of the media) that "Immigration is doubling U.S. population in your child's lifetime." This helps Americans not only to talk about immigration but also to know how to talk about it. And in Iowa, it was done for less than two hundred dollars.

NOTES

1 K.C. McAlpin, "Language As the Entry Point for the Debate," The Social Contract, Vol. XI, No. 2, Winter 2001, p. 123.

2 See the article on the churches' misuse of the term "sojourners" by Edwin Childress in this issue, p. 206.

About the author

Craig Nelsen is president of ProjectUSA, an educational organization (www.projectusa.com).

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