Bolder Advocacy

Immigration Reform: Tips for Holding Lawmakers Accountable

A local SEIU in California is sponsoring a bus tour to rally support for reform.

A local SEIU in California is organizing a bus tour to rally support for reform.

This month, advocates for comprehensive immigration reform are working at a fever pitch. They’re talking to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, doing a “Keeping Families Together” bus tour around the country, and holding a call-in week to Congress.

All this to put pressure on elected officials to pass a bill soon that creates a common sense, fair, and humane immigration process, one that includes a path to citizenship, as favored by most Americans. Getting there is going to require a number of what some have called “brash” advocacy tactics – though we would call them bold. Often this means praising and criticizing senators, Members of Congress, and possibly even the president.

The campaign to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality involves public charities (501(c)(3) nonprofits), unions, and 501(c)(4)s working together. To guide groups as they craft communications to put pressure on elected officials, we’ve outlined the ground rules about what each type of organization can do. While it’s not a federal election year, keep in mind that a lawmaker may be considered a candidate for office if she has declared her intention to run for re-election or has been proposed by others to run (e.g., individual being drafted to run) and individuals exploring whether to run for office (e.g., Ashley Judd, who is being discussed in the press as a possible candidate for Senate in Kentucky).

How 501(c)(3)s Can Legally Praise and Criticize Legislators

As part of the campaign to pass comprehensive immigration reform (CIR), a 501(c)(3) public charity may want to publicize its views by criticizing or praising—also known as “thanking or spanking”—legislators for their positions on reform. This public communication might take place in advance of or following a vote on an immigration bill. To share their views on a lawmaker’s actions, a 501(c)(3) may buy ads in newspapers, on the radio, or online (posts on Facebook, Twitter, etc.). They may put up billboards, send out mailers, and produce other materials. To avoid the perception that your communication is intended to influence the 2014 elections, follow these guidelines:

  1. Focus on official actions only.
  2. Time communications to coincide with policy actions.
  3. Show a track record of working on the issue.
  4. Use nonpartisan criteria only for choosing which legislators to focus on.
  5. Include legislators not up for re-election in your communication.
  6. Pay attention to timing—if close to election could be viewed as partisan.
  7. Use caution when the issue distinguishes candidates.
  8. Avoid overlap with affiliated 501(c)(4).

For a detailed explanation of each of these guidelines, click here.

What Additional Activities Can Unions and 501(c)(4)s Do?

Unions and 501(c)(4) organizations are subject to fewer restrictions under tax law than are 501(c)(3) organizations regarding their political activity. As long as supporting or opposing candidates is not their primary activity, unions and 501(c)(4)s can participate in political activities (or campaign intervention) under federal tax law. However, 501(c)(4)s must also be aware of their obligations under federal and state election law as well as federal tax law.

Unions and 501(c)(4)s can do all of the praising and criticizing activities 501(c)(3)s can do. In addition, they are also permitted to structure their accountability efforts to support or oppose the re-election efforts of an incumbent legislator. For example, subject to the FEC’s disclosure and disclaimer rules, a union or a 501(c)(4) could run a series of billboards on CIR in a district where the incumbent Member of Congress is particularly vulnerable. For more on FEC rules, see Chapter 1 in The Connection.

They could also target messaging not only to pressure the legislator to vote for CIR, but also to highlight the fact that there is a candidate running against the incumbent who is stronger on CIR. A union or (c)(4) could also start working on CIR for the first time now because they want to ensure a Member of Congress will retain her seat and the organization thinks promoting her vote on CIR will help her with re-election.

LEARN MORE: To learn about influencing policy through a 501(c)(4), sign up for our webinar next Tuesday, March 19: The Advantages of a 501(c)(4): Maximize Your Advocacy


The Connection: Strategies for Creating and Operating 501(c)(3)s, 501(c)(4)s, and Political Organizations

The Rules of the Game: A Guide to Election-Related Activities for 501(c)(3) Organizations

Toolkit for Immigration Reform Advocacy