After years of deadlocked, partisan battles over the nation’s broken immigration system, foundations that help some of the most vilified people in American society have new reasons to feel their grants can make a difference.
Two starkly different developments pose new challenges for nonprofits that serve immigrants. In the spring the Obama administration finally delivered on its promises and granted the children of illegal immigrants protection from deportation and allowed them to get work permits.
Then, just a few weeks later, the Supreme Court upheld the most harmful provision of Arizona’s controversial immigration law, requiring law-enforcement agents to stop people based on “reasonable suspicion” that they are undocumented immigrants.
Given the nation’s troubled history and continuing challenges in fighting racism, it’s not a stretch to predict that some police officers in Arizona will interpret “reasonable suspicion” to mean anybody who looks like he or she comes from Central America, Mexico, or elsewhere outside the United States.
We know this from our personal experiences. Eight years ago, Walter was an undocumented student who had helped found United We Dream Network, a coalition of youth-led immigrant organizations. While he was on an Amtrak train bound for Chicago, agents from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department boarded his train, stopped him, and demanded his papers.
Soon after, Hugh got a call from the New York Immigration Coalition asking if the North Star Fund could provide a grant to help pay for Walter’s legal defense and to get him out of the limbo of the federal detention and deportation system. We did, and Walter got the advice and support he needed to move on.
Three years later, Walter was sitting in North Star’s office interviewing to become a program officer. In the intervening time, he was able to finish college and formalize the United We Dream Network. As North Star’s program officer, he helped countless other grass-roots leaders, and he has since moved on to the next stage of his career, helping immigrants and refugees—a very different life than he might otherwise have had.
Walter’s story shows how philanthropic dollars can make a difference. But there’s a lot more that foundations can do. Grant makers that are willing to take risks can make a big difference in fighting political gridlock on Capitol Hill and the extremism of the far right in Washington. But so, too, can foundations that are more cautious. Here are some examples of both short-term and long-term approaches that can make a real difference.
Expand community outreach and services. In the wake of the Obama administration’s decision to help children of immigrants, government officials expect many of the more than 1 million young people who qualify to apply for permission to stay in the United States without fear of deportation.
Organizations that serve immigrant youths and their families need money to expand and train their staff members to help their clients deal with the new federal application process. They also need aid to develop multilingual materials explaining the process and reach out to immigrants in churches, schools and community centers; train guidance counselors, teachers, and others who work with immigrants; and make staff members available to answer questions in a timely fashion.
Local grass-roots and educational institutions could also benefit from additional support so they can reach out to eligible youngsters and counsel them about their options.
Build the ability of nonprofits to respond to legal threats. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Arizona raises the stakes for organizations that serve immigrants in that state and elsewhere. Copycat laws may soon be proposed, so many groups that serve immigrants need to move quickly to add new staff members, rent temporary space, and hire lawyers and advisers, all with the goal of reaching out as broadly as possible to people who are among the most marginalized in society.
Think about the undocumented immigrant pulled over by the police after getting off work at 2 a.m. Or the one who has witnessed a crime in the middle of the night but is afraid to report it for fear of being deported. They need to be able to turn to a local trustworthy organization that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Nonprofits need money to train their staff members to serve as liaisons between their clients and the police or immigration authorities and to provide round-the-clock services.
Share successful approaches for immigrant services. It is time to end the all-too-common substandard, predatory, and fraudulent practices of phony immigration service providers.
Nonprofits like New Immigrant Community Empowerment, or NICE, combine community organizing and education, leadership development, research, and advocacy to curb the abusive practices and industries. NICE does this in many ways, from traditional approaches like consumer-education workshops to less traditional, such as “José Busca Legalizarse” (José Seeks Legal Status), a graphic novel about immigrant consumer fraud. Programs like that can be spread nationally to keep immigrants from falling prey to phony services that could cost them thousands of dollars and put them on a path to deportation.
Push for moral immigration solutions. While as many as 1.4 million undocumented youths could benefit from the new federal policy, the rest of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States are still the targets of immigration-enforcement programs.
Legal groups, advocacy groups, and others need to develop and push for legislation like the California Trust Act, which aims to build strong ties between police and California’s immigrants.
The Trust Act requires local police departments to release people who have been arrested once their bond is posted or their sentence is up, as long as they have no serious convictions. The legislation could offer a smarter alternative to punitive laws like Arizona’s “show me your papers” requirement.
Add leaders of immigrant movements to foundation staffs. Grant makers should support and participate in programs that will create a pipeline for the many leaders of the immigration-reform movement to become foundation workers. Our strategies will be infused with the experiences, knowledge, and energy of this movement. North Star Fund has benefited enormously by hiring program staff members who reflect and fully understand the needs of our grantee organizations.
Strategically build the grass-roots movement and leaders. At North Star Fund, we recognize that the most sweeping changes our grants have helped bring about were started by people directly affected by the issues. Small groups came together and committed themselves to changing the conditions caused by racism, poverty, and injustice. Over time, they won battles, improved the lives of their members, and grew to become powerful forces in the United States.
In 2009, our 30th anniversary, we realized the need to invest more strategically in that process by expanding our partnerships with grass-roots organizing groups that were beginning to grow in size and impact, while maintaining our longstanding commitment and prioritization of grants toward new, small groups.
Organizations like NICE and the New York State Youth Leadership Council have established track records, built on many years of work fighting for passage of policies like the Dream Act, which would provide permanent citizenship to many children of illegal immigrants.
North Star Fund is one of a small group of community foundations that focus on building the ability of grass-roots groups to organize people who are directly affected by injustice. We recognize that most grant makers have different agendas.
But recent developments on the immigration front provide new opportunities for grant makers to come together and link with grass-roots community groups to build a vibrant, engaged, and lasting immigrant-rights movement and finally fix what all sides agree is a damaged immigration system.