Amid the Contentious Politics of Immigration, a Community Organizes

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For years, the issues of immigration and immigrants themselves have been the topic of heated debate. The purpose of this article is to explore an issue that too often gets lost in the din of talk radio, the O’Reillys and Lou Dobbses of cable TV, and even the halls of Congress. Beyond the highly charged rhetoric, immigrant communities have organized to respond to their needs and, above all, lift the voices of those who are demonized, criminalized, and scapegoated.

The Needs and Challenges of Immigrant Communities

The needs and challenges of immigrant communities go beyond English as a Second Language instruction and obtaining legal documents so immigrants can live and work peacefully in the United States. With all low-income communities, immigrants share needs such as housing, health care, jobs, and education. But given how definitions of citizenship are intimately connected with how a nation accords rights, privileges, and responsibilities, immigrants’ “foreignness” creates a particular set of challenges. For example, federal programs such as Section 8, Medicaid and Medicare, and others are completely restricted to immigrants, even if they are legal, permanent residents. Further, in today’s highly charged political climate, “otherness” has been exacerbated by rhetoric that portrays today’s immigrants as “illegal,” “criminal aliens,” those who steal jobs, and even terrorists, making it almost impossible to enact sensible U.S. immigration policy to address the plight of millions of undocumented immigrants in our midst.

The Latino immigrant community is particularly affected by the current sociopolitical landscape surrounding immigrants. First, it constitutes 54 percent of the total immigrant population in the United States and thus a significant proportion.1 Further, it is one of the most egregiously affected by current U.S. immigration policy. For example, of the 960,756 people deported during the 2007 fiscal year, 89 percent were from Mexico and 7 percent were from Central America.2 Regarding the most publicized and large-scale work-site raids in recent years, the vast majority of workers affected were Mexican and Central American.3

Arguably the most urgent challenge for immigrant communities is to detoxify the political landscape so that immigrants are embraced and sensible legislation can be enacted. Well-established national advocacy and other organizations do so by advancing the rights and interests of immigrants and the Latino community in the United States.4 In recent years, additional organizing initiatives have emerged that perhaps illustrate two new characteristics of today’s immigrant-rights movement.5 One is the increasing desire of immigrants to be active participants in the movement. The other is the networked structure that these organizations favor, where the focus is on connecting organizations at the grassroots and on building their capacity to be more effective change agents locally and nationally.

One of these new organizing networks geared toward grassroots immigrant organizations is the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC). Given the size of the Latino immigrant community and the disproportionate way in which it is affected by U.S. immigration policy, NALACC was launched to elevate the voices of Latino and Caribbean immigrant-led organizations and unite them into a national political vehicle that represents the perspective of these grassroots organizations. In addition, the organization has a transnational advocacy agenda that responds to the reality of today’s immigrants as binational actors.6 Finally, NALACC builds the capacity of its members to strengthen their ability to organize, mobilize, and develop indigenous leadership so these leaders can be more effective and strategic actors at the local, national, and transnational levels.

Emergence of a National Grassroots Network

In January 2004, President George W. Bush stated his intention to reform immigration policy. His rhetoric was surprisingly compassionate, avoiding the pejorative term illegal and calling for a sensible and humane way to deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The president’s address caused a flurry of media coverage. Frequently absent from the debate were the voices of immigrants themselves, particularly Latino and Caribbean immigrants.

Not satisfied by the absence of their voices, a group of leaders, colleagues, and friends contacted one another to explore a response. This kind of networking was possible because of three organizing efforts. One was the establishment during the 1990s of two Central American immigrant–led networks that self-constituted after years of working in the solidarity movement with Central America in the United States.7 The second was an emergent network in the Chicago area of hometown associations from several states in Mexico. The third was Enlaces América’s programmatic initiative to bring together the Central American and Mexican hometown association networks for relationship building and learning exchanges.8 These increased contacts involving Central American and Mexican immigrant community leaders prior to 2004 established the possibility of a Latin America–wide network of pan-Latino immigrant-led organizations.

In the end, a group of Mexican, Central American, and Dominican immigrant community leaders organized two successful summits. The first summit took place a mere three weeks after the presidents’ address and brought together 30 leaders in Washington, D.C. The second took place in May, which grew to 50 leaders from cities throughout the United States that represented immigrant communities from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic.

In June of the same year, there was consensus that a vehicle to raise the collective voice of Latino and Caribbean immigrant communities at the national level was needed. Further, the new organization would have a transnational focus as well. Finally, as leaders of organizations that have constituencies comprising Latino/Caribbean immigrants at the local level, the groups agreed that the new organization needed to model similar accountability lines and that the strategic and political direction would come from the organizations themselves. Thus, in June 2004, NALACC was born.

Grassroots Organizations Networked
through NALACC

NALACC is composed of 80 members. Member organizations operate in different cities throughout the United States and have concentrations in the Greater Boston area, New York City, Miami, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles, all major communities of Latino immigrants. These organizations’ constituencies are primarily immigrants from Mexico and Central America, including racial and ethnic groups in these countries such as Mayans and Garifunas who are of African descent. While many NALACC members were founded around a specific national identity, over time they have transcended national identity to adopt a broader Latino identity. Centro Presente in Somerville, Massachusetts, uses a tree metaphor to describe this evolution. This organizational member sees itself as an organization with Salvadoran roots, a Central-American trunk, and Latin-American branches.

Some NALACC members are “hometown associations,” raising money locally to fund community and economic development projects in their towns and countries of origin.9 Others integrate the delivery of various services with community organizing, advocacy, and leadership development. About half of these organizations have incorporated into 501(c)(3) nonprofits. The rest have not and operate as civic and cultural associations.

The grassroots membership is the ultimate authority of NALACC, gathering at least once a year for three days to elect its executive committee, which emerges from and is nominated and elected by the membership. At these annual assemblies, NALACC’s executive committee provides a programmatic and financial report to members, and work priorities are identified and decided on collectively.

In addition to the yearly member assembly, NALACC members stay connected formally and informally. Informally, NALACC members e-mail and call one another for mutual support, information sharing, and problem solving.

Formally, the executive committee—comprising 11 leaders of NALACC member organizations—and is nominated and elected by the membership itself, meets face to face twice a year. NALACC members that have organized local networks in Massachusetts, Los Angeles, and Chicago also meet face to face at least monthly. In addition, there are monthly membership teleconferences and bimonthly teleconferences of the executive committee. When important issues arise—particularly those regarding immigration—the executive committee convenes emergency teleconferences of the entire membership. And a Web site and e-mail list have been established to share information and develop policy updates and analyses on immigration and international development.

How a Network Supports Grassroots Membership

As a political vehicle that aims to elevate the voices of Latino and Caribbean immigrants, NALACC is based on the belief that its experience, knowledge, and wisdom come from its member organizations. The challenge is to elicit, make explicit, and share that wisdom through the work of a four-person national team, described here through examples of how NALACC builds grassroots power and fosters the growth of indigenous leadership as well as the network’s efforts in local and national advocacy.

Building Grassroots Community Power

Over the past three years, NALACC’s national team has traveled throughout the country to provide its members two- and three-day workshops on community organizing, strategic communications, fundraising, alliance building, international development, and migration. In addition, each annual member assembly kicks off its three-day meeting with a day of analyses and workshops that feature expert panels and peer-to-peer learning sessions.

In 2008, to formalize its curriculum and training methodology, NALACC surveyed members’ capacity-building needs. Members’ responses raised issues such as community organizing, policy and legislation, strategic alliances, and race, class, and identity. To respond to the survey, NALACC began convening weekend retreats with leaders of member organizations with demonstrated track records in different capacity-building areas to develop a curriculum that will be delivered as capacity-building assistance through structured training as well as peer-to-peer learning opportunities.

On May 16, 2009, the first of these retreats took place. Leaders of member-driven organizations such as Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, Centro Hispano Cuzcatlan, Centro Presente, Hermandad Mexicana, Centro de Recursos Centroamericanos, and the Chelsea Collaborative gathered to discuss core grassroots capacity-building questions such as the following: What does community mean? What does organizing a community mean? What does organizing community look like in your organization? What is the role of values in community organizing? What are the differences between mobilizing and organizing?

The anticipated end product of this process is a training manual for NALACC members in what they call “Instituto de Liderazgo Movil,” or Mobile Leadership Institute, as leaders travel to one another’s regions for peer-to-peer learning exchanges.

Developing Indigenous Leadership

One of the most important ways in which NALACC has developed and strengthened the leadership of its members is through transnational work. Since its inception, NALACC has demonstrated concern about how international trade policies have decimated the economies of the global south and fueled migration. By combining targeted training with a learning-by-doing approach, NALACC leaders have increased their capacity to speak effectively about this issue where such debates take place.

Through its transnational work, NALACC has trained leaders on the global economy, international economic institutions and trade policies, and alternative models of local economic and community development. The training is applied as leaders participate in international delegations that have traveled to World Social Forum gatherings in India, Brazil, and Venezuela and to the Americas Social Forum gatherings in Ecuador and Atlanta and to the Philippines and Spain, where international forums and summits on migration have taken place.

In these international delegations, NALACC leaders are active participants who present in panels, speak to media sources, and meet with elected and government officials. In March 2009, a delegation of 14 leaders of NALACC member organizations traveled to Medellín, Colombia, in a series of events organized to mark the 50th anniversary of the Inter-American Development Banks. During this time, NALACC leaders exchanged learning experiences, organized press conferences, and met with bank officials to discuss concerns about how the bank’s policies and investments undermine the region, causing migration, displacement, and climate change.

Advocacy

In March 2005, to contribute to the immigrant-rights movement in its quest to reform immigration policy in a sensible and humane way, NALACC launched its Keep Our Families Together Campaign. The campaign raises awareness of the suffering borne by so many immigrant communities given the separation from loved ones produced by the migration experience, from leaving loved ones behind to being trapped in the United States by policies that prohibit freedom in travel to being wrenched apart again through raids, detentions, and deportations.

In addition to its public education, the campaign provides a framework to unify the community organizing, mobilizing, and advocacy efforts of NALACC members at the local and national level regarding immigration reform while providing flexibility for NALACC members to be responsive to local conditions. Through the campaign, NALACC members that had not been active in the immigrant-rights movement were activated. Those NALACC members that were already doing such work at the local level found a way to feel connected to others throughout the country. Since the launch of the campaign, national actions coordinated at the local level have been instituted. Similarly, NALACC members at the local level have organized local actions and mobilizations under the campaign’s umbrella.

Exemplifying NALACC’s effort to elevate the voices of those most marginalized, it recently launched a series of “consult comunitarias,” or community consultations. The consultations gather small groups of 15 to 20 people at each participating organization to facilitate dialogue about the meaning of “comprehensive immigration reform,” the likelihood of such legislation being enacted this year, and ideas about what should be included in legislation to reform immigration. Several consultations have already taken place in the Greater Boston area, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and more are being planned for this summer and early fall.

The Value and Challenges of a
Grassroots Network

Only five years in existence, NALACC is fairly young among national immigrant organizing networks. It’s a primary concern to continue to strengthen the relationship building among NALACC members not only to ensure the stability and viability of the network but also to realize the incipient synergy among members to mobilize and advocate for the Latino immigrant community. Given that the network is dispersed throughout a vast geographic expanse and the opportunities for members to interact on a face-to-face basis are limited, this is a challenge. While technology helps to keep the network together, when NALACC leaders travel in international delegations or convene during annual assemblies or workshops, trust among members is built.

NALACC also faces the challenge of building a participative network that is truly owned by its members. While the ability to hire dedicated staff to coordinate the network has increased the organization’s overall capacity, it also has the potential of minimizing the active participation of its organizational members. Further, it can increase the expectations of members in terms of how NALACC can support them individually and catalyze the synergy of the network. Thus, a constant challenge for NALACC is to foment a change in behavior among network members so they assume more leadership within the network and can collaborate more closely with one another.

NALACC’s long-term relevance depends on the extent to which it can fulfill its vision of elevating the voices of Latino immigrant communities. The capacity building it has provided and the operational capacity to organize delegations, meetings, and events have enabled member organizations to do things they could not do on their own. Early this year, for example, a delegation met with the Obama administration’s transition team. Facilitating the participation of NALACC members in international convenings is another way of strengthening the voices of these largely small, grassroots organizations. Further, because of its grassroots, member-driven structure, NALACC’s capacity-building efforts—as well as the way in which the curriculum is designed and the way in which the training will be owned and delivered by the organizations themselves—respond to the needs expressed by member organizations. This ownership by Latino and Caribbean immigrant communities is NALACC’s greatest challenge and contribution to the immigrant-rights movement.

Endnotes

1. 2007 U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey (www.census.gov/acs/www/Products/index.html).

2. Department of Homeland Security, 2007 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics (http://www.dhs.gov/ximgtn/statistics/publications/yearbook.shtm).

3. Regarding work-site raids, three of these examples include six Swift and Company meatpacking factories raided on December 12, 2006, which resulted in the detention of 1,297 workers, most of whom are Mexican and Guatemalan; the raid on the Michael Bianco garment factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in which 361 people, mostly Salvadoran and Guatemalan women were detained, and the raid on Agriprocessers Inc. in Postville, Iowa, where 383 of the 390 arrests were Guatemalan and Mexican workers.

4. Some examples include the National Immigration Forum, the National Immigration Law Center, the American Immigration Lawyers’ Association, and the Center for Community Change as well as the National Council of La Raza, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.

5. Some examples include the National Day Laborer Network, the National Immigrant Solidarity Network, and the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, which, despite its founding in 1986, exhibits the characteristics of the more recent immigrant-led networks.

6. Family remittances, for example, constitute significant portions of many Latin American countries’ home economies. In 2008, 18 percent of El Salvador’s gross national product (GNP) came from family remittances. In Mexico, while remittances constitute 3 percent of the country’s GNP, the total amount sent in family remittances in 2008 totaled $26 billion. Additionally, many organizations that conform to NALACC, such as the Salvadoran-American National Network and the various Mexican federations of hometown associations, have played active roles in advocating for the right of their respective diasporas to vote in their country’s presidential elections.

7. These networks are the Coalition of Guatemalan Immigrants in the United States (CONGUATE) and the Salvadoran American National Network (SANN).

8. Enlaces América was a project of the Chicago-based Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights.

9. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that there are between 600 and 3,000 Mexican hometown associations in the United States and cites the Vice Ministry of Affairs for Salvadorans Living Abroad for a count of 268 Salvadoran hometown associations. See Will Somerville, Jamie Durana, and Aaron Matteo Terrazas, “Hometown Associations: An Untapped Resource for Immigrant Integration?,” Insight, Migration Policy Institute, July 2008 (www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/Insight-HTAs-July08.pdf); the MPI report cites the Confederation of Mexican Federations in the Midwest (CONFEMEX) as one of the founding organizations of NALACC.

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NALACC was launched to elevate the voices of Latino and Caribbean immigrant-led organizations and unite them into a national political vehicle.

While many NALACC members were founded around a specific national identity, over time they have transcended national identity.

Most nonprofits are so small that they don’t meet the revenue threshold for filing Form 990s with the Internal Revenue Service. Sometimes, they are not even incorporated 501c(3)s, but rather informal neighborhood or community associations.

A significant part of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC) membership does not post Form 990s on GuideStar, the online database for nonprofits, suggesting that the network supports mostly small, volunteer-based organizations. These organizations may not have big budgets and large reserves, but they provide functions, services, and connections undoubtedly important to the immigrants who depend on them for support and services.

Of 74 NALACC member organizations, only 18 posted 990s from 2006, 2007, or 2008. Other than the multifunctional Erie Neighborhood House (with programs beyond serving Latino immigrants) and one other organization, only five had operating budgets of more than $1 million, and few had much in the way of reserves, suggesting that most survive based on annual fundraising and members’ donations, or more accurately, most are basically volunteer-led and -operated organizations.

Several NALACC members are hometown associations of Mexicans, Salvadorans, and other Central Americans. They may look like social clubs to non-Latinos, maintaining cultural, linguistic, and sports connections as well as helping with remittances given their transnational identities, but these hometown associations also serve as focal points for immigrant-rights organizing.

Also in the NALACC network are federations of hometown associations, notably the Confederation of Mexican Federations (Confederacion de Federaciones Mexicanas), known as CONFEMEX. According to its Web site, CONFEMEX functions as an umbrella group serving nine federations of hometown associations (from Chihuahua, Durango, Hidalgo, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, and Michoacán) in the metropolitan Chicago area.† According to a paper published by the Mexico Institute for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the nine COMFEMEX member federations serve 179 hometown associations, most of which, like most NALACC members, are low-funded or unfunded, volunteer-dependent organizations.††

On their own, these largely volunteer organizations are on the fringes of the nonprofit sector, functioning when their volunteer directors can take time away from their more-than-full-time jobs to devote to immigrant-rights advocacy and organizing. Within a supportive network such as NALACC, volunteer organizations have access to training resources and connection to national advocacy campaigns. Unlike other pieces of the nonprofit infrastructure, networks are typically member driven. In the case of NALACC, the network is grassroots driven, an example of democracy in action.

Creating a Network among Vulnerable Immigrant Organizations

† Casa Guanajuato Federación de Guanajuato en Illinois (www.confemexusa.com/).

†† Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro, Chicago Mexican Hometown Associations and the Confederation of Mexican Federations: Experiences of Binational Civic Participation, Mexico Institute for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, October 2007.

It’s a primary concern to continue to strengthen the relationship building among NALACC members to ensure network stability and viability.

NALACC’s long-term relevance depends on the extent to which it can fulfill its vision of elevating the voices of Latino immigrant communities.