Some people might think that a concern about documented and undocumented immigrants is sort of outside the ken of most “regular Jane and Joe” nonprofits, the groups that aren’t immigrant-founded or -run, the groups whose agendas ostensibly have little to do or nothing to do directly with immigration reform.
That’s not true. All nonprofits have a stake in treating, serving, advocating for, and supporting immigrants in this nation. What should nonprofits be prepared to do? We have some suggestions.
1. Fight against ignorance about immigrants and immigration: Emblematic about some of the ignorant fear-mongering about immigrants is a recent statement from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), one of its unending stream of anti-immigrant arguments, that immigration reform will exacerbate global warming and climate change. Suddenly concerned about the environment, FAIR’s CEO, Dan Stein, observed “population growth caused by unchecked immigration has steadily increased our energy use and our carbon emissions.” According to FAIR’s press release about its new report, “Immigration, Energy and the Environment addresses America’s stifled immigration policy debate: it finds that America’s massive immigration-fueled population growth was the single largest contributing factor to the nation’s increased energy consumption and carbon emissions over the past 35 years.” Stein-the-environmentalist concluded, “It is not the fault of immigrants for requiring energy resources. It is the fault of U.S. policymakers for failing to recognize and correct immigration policies that undermine our ability to achieve vital energy and environmental goals.”
Stein’s position was almost that of the Sierra Club not all that long ago, when some leaders of the Sierra Club including former three-term Democratic governor of Colorado, Dick Lamm, tried to get the organization to adopt an anti-immigrant overpopulation platform (see Lamm’s 2006 article in the Social Contract Journal, for his analysis that the Sierra Club’s rejection of the anti-immigrant position was a “cop-out”). It almost happened. Fortunately, the Sierra Club decided not to slip into a version of xenophobic environmentalism. There are lots of myths about immigrants and immigration that merit attention from organizations, like environmentalists, that could be marshaled to take action. A good example is another piece from the Social Contract Journal, where a conservative economist made the following intellectual leaps: that one-fourth to one-third of Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) funds are “improperly paid”; that “improperly paid” is pretty much the same thing as “fraud”; that “much of the fraud relates to immigrants” because immigrants constitute 13 percent of the U.S. population but receive 26 percent of EITC benefits; and “illegal aliens actually receive the EITC at even greater rates than legal immigrants.”
No joke, but these kinds of “facts” about immigrants seep into the public consciousness unless actively confronted and dismissed by people who know the real facts.
2. Fight for fairness in the treatment of immigrants: This applies for documented and undocumented immigrants. According to a report on National Public Radio, 6.1 million of the 46 million people in this nation lacking health insurance are possibly undocumented immigrants. As Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change notes, “All of the plans getting serious consideration in Congress would exclude undocumented immigrants. Many proposals would even bar access to community health centers and emergency rooms — a historic shift from America’s humanitarian tradition that in an emergency no one should be turned away. Some proposals would exclude legal resident immigrants who have been in the United States for less than five years.” The notion that health care reform would exclude millions of people in this country, as though we can somehow imagine them away, is simultaneously silly and pernicious. Whether it is a matter of health care or employment, the nonprofit sector has to stand up for immigrants to demand that they be treated fairly.
3. Fight for immigration reform: After the Obama Administration’s White House gathering to suggest it would support immigration reform, there have be a series of odd actions, the expansion of the Department of Homeland Security’s commitment to the flawed “E-verify” employment verification system side-by-side with a laudatory backing away from the 287(g) inducement for localities and states to give local police the powers to function as federal immigration officers as they arrest immigrants from everything from major crimes to broken tail lights, and actions by the Democratic-led House and Senate voting to fund 700 miles of fencing and other approaches to deal with unauthorized immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. As Janet Murguia of the National Council of La Raza said, “It’s time to stop the missteps, half-steps, and back-steps on immigration. The country wants immigration reform, the Latino community is waiting for it, our families are suffering, and we need to see some serious progress.”
The White House immigration gathering on June 25 (delayed from earlier scheduled meetings) was noticeably short on specifics as to the Administration’s hard-and-fast ideas about immigration reform. The White House and all nonprofits would be well advised to get on the stick to move immigration reform on the fast-track, as recommended by a bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations task force headed by the hardly-radical pairing of Jeb Bush (former Republican governor of Florida) and Mack McLarty (Bill Clinton’s former White House Chief of Staff). The CFR report recounts the benefits the U.S. has reaped from immigration which could be “undermined” by the immigration reform stalemate and recommends streamlining the immigration process and charting a way for undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. legally.
4. Fight for a census that accurately counts immigrants: The immigrant stake in an accurate census count in 2010 is huge. A significant portion of federal assistance is allocated based on formulas relying on population numbers. For areas with large immigrant populations, an undercount means depriving families of potential federal resources. Nonprofits with memories of the 2000 census undercount should know full well the meaning. A 2001 PriceWaterhouseCoopers study showed that the 2000 census had an undercount of 1.18 percent. 31 states and the District of Columbia lost $4.1 billion in Medicaid, Foster Care, Child Care and Development Block Grant, Social Services Block Grant, substance abuse, vocational education, adoption assistance, and Rehabilitation Services Basic Support funds, that is, from only 8 federal programs. The biggest dollar losses (more than $100 million apiece) were in 8 counties, Los Angeles County, CA, Bronx County, NY, Kings County (Brooklyn), NY, Harris County (Houston), TX, New York County (Manhattan), NY, Cook County (Chicago), IL, Dallas County, TX, and Miami-Dade County, FL, all easily recognizable as primary locations for immigrants and refugees today. Knowing the financial consequences, some communities such as West Valley City, UT, San Diego, CA, and Hampton Roads, VA, just to name three, with significant or growing immigrant populations are gearing up to ensure full census participation.
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While organizations such as the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) are leading efforts to encourage all immigrants to be counted, this is an issue that should concern Latino and non-Latino organizations, immigrant and non-immigrant nonprofits alike. While there are a couple of groups (the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders and the Mexican American Political Association) advocating that undocumented immigrants should boycott the census in order to pressure the Obama Administration and Congress to enact immigration reform, it is hard to grasp NCLCCL’s contention that Congress “seeing” the millions of uncounted immigrants will compel federal legislative action. Not being counted is to disappear—and to lose critical resources. Rather, nonprofits could follow the common sense recommendations of groups such as Fundacion Azteca America addressing fears that census information will be used against immigrants. All nonprofits have a stake in a full census count that includes all immigrants.
5. Fight for the DREAM Act: The Council on Foreign Relations immigration task force report suggests that the DREAM Act is a great model for legalization of undocumented immigrants. As we have written in the Philanthropy Journal and here in the Cohen Report, the DREAM Act (the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act) seems eminently reasonable and easy to make happen—if it gets support from a broad array of nonprofits. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented children in the U.S. attend school, graduate high school and find themselves not only without higher-education opportunities because of their legal status in the U.S., but without opportunity to become legal residents or citizens unless their parents do so for themselves. The DREAM Act would make undocumented immigrant high school graduates, or those who have earned their GED diploma, eligible to apply for conditional permanent resident status if they planned to go to college or enter the military. And if they finished college or served two years in the military, they would be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. Although the legislation would not require states to provide in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrant high school graduates, it would remove federal penalties for states that do provide in-state tuition. Qualified immigrants also would be eligible for federal college loans and work-study programs. The legislative intent is straightforward: These kids are in the U.S., going to school. They want to go to college or join the U.S. military. They are doing all the right things anyone would want of permanent residents or citizens. And they happen to be young immigrants without full documentation due to no fault of their own. Why prevent them from becoming assets to the nation by denying them the opportunity to attend college, continue their educations, and expand their skills?
According to the National Council of La Raza and the League of United Latin American Citizens, 60,000 to 65,000 undocumented young people graduate from U.S. high schools each year. Eighty thousand undocumented kids turn 18 each year in the U.S., but about one-sixth do not graduate from high school. DREAM Act opponents fear these young people will scarf up higher-education slots and benefits to the detriment of children who live in the U.S. legally, and that allowing for in-state tuition will lead to preferences for undocumented immigrants over other state college applicants. Many immigrants look to service in the U.S. military as an avenue to citizenship. Just like previous generations of immigrants to the U.S., they look to military service for economic and social advancement and typically are more interested than longer-term residents in joining the armed forces. The DREAM Act would make this possible.
Should nonprofits support the DREAM Act? How about youth service groups, education groups, and high schools and colleges? Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, for example, has taken a public stand in favor of the legislation. The DREAM Act, she says, “would throw a lifeline to these students who are already working hard in our middle and high schools and living in our communities by granting them the temporary legal status that would allow them to pursue post-secondary education.” Like Gilpin Faust’s Harvard, a group does not need to be an “immigrant organization” to be involved in debates about the DREAM Act, extending services to immigrants in other programs such as plans for new health-insurance coverage, and overall immigration reform. The reason is not a question of positions on immigration or immigrants, but beliefs in social justice and human rights. The DREAM Act fits that nonprofit supra-mission.
6. Fight against anti-immigrant policies and laws at the local and state levels: The impact of groups like FAIR is not limited to strange statements linking immigrants with climate change. There are still constant flows of anti-immigrant laws being floated in various states and localities. Increasingly, they are being defeated by legislators who are beginning to understand the often malicious and punitive motivations behind the authors of these bills. But nonprofits still have to be on guard to defend fairness and human rights against the anti-immigrant attitudes that could be codified into law without much public discussion. In Arizona, one state senator (who is part of a national network called State Legislators for Legal Immigration) has sponsored 17 of the state’s 27 bills that are seen as punitive toward immigrants, but his most recent spate of four proposals were turned down by the legislature, no doubt partly in response to the 40,000 e-mails to legislators sparked by groups such as the Border Action Network.
But sometimes the anti-immigrant energies are not devoted to legislative proposals or Dan Stein’s reports. NumbersUSA is targeting the hardly pro-immigration John Cornyn (R-TX) with a campaign against his “frightening pro-amnesty” positions. San Francisco has been roiled with news that a San Francisco Chronicle reporter who has made a cause out of criticizing the city’s unwillingness to notify the federal government about arrests of undocumented immigrants (basically the same 287(g) policy that the Obama Administration has just backed away from) was revealed to have accepted a cash award from the Center for Immigration Studies, a well known nativist, anti-immigration organization. A recent report from the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights reveals a sharp escalation of hate crimes targeting immigrants, some of it tied and timed to last year’s abortive efforts of Senators McCain and Kennedy—and President George W. Bush—to enact a surprisingly reasonable immigration reform package that succumbed mostly to attacks from the right wing. Also in Arizona, south of Tucson, some members of the virulently anti-immigrant Minutemen group have been charged with impersonating police officers and killing a Latino man and his 9-year-old daughter as part of some sort of plot to “rob suspected drug dealers and use the proceeds to fund Minutemen-style activities.”
7. Fight to build communities more welcoming to today’s immigrants than many were to our forbears: We often forget that this nation did not welcome previous waves of immigrants all that warmly. Irish, Italian, Slavic, and Jewish immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were often treated with disdain, hatred, and violence. That isn’t a history we want to repeat. Rather, it would be worthwhile to recognize and build upon the strengths of immigrants adding to the richness of American society. Listen to the inspiring off-the-cuff remarks of former vice president Walter Mondale in a recent issue of Parade magazine: “The thing is that here we are from everywhere, yet every one of us—from Norway or China or God knows where—considers himself American. We may look at the world differently, but unlike so many other societies, we do not get torn apart on religious and national grounds. Where I live, in the Twin Cities, we have Laotian Hmongs bringing new strengths to the State Senate and to the school board and the hospitals and businesses. They’re a force—and they’re making the country better.”
We all know that immigration has made this nation better. With the exception of the peoples who were on this continent before the European expansion westward, we are all immigrants, some of us because our ancestors came by choice looking for a better life, some of us as descendants of peoples forcibly taken to this continent as slaves or indentured laborers. But across the U.S., immigrants and non-immigrants alike are building successful communities with the active engagement of the nonprofit sector. Think about groups like Hispanic Housing Development Corporation in Chicago, Enlace Chicago (formerly Little Village Community Development Corporation) serving North and South Lawndale, the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation in Boston, the Somerville Community Corporation in Somerville (outside of Boston), the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Corporation in Lowell, Massachusetts, Asian Americans for Equality in Manhattan, Coastal Enterprises serving rural Maine, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, the Chinatown Community Development Corporation in San Francisco, the MANNA Community Development Corporation, and so many more committed to building thriving immigrant as well as multi-ethnic, multi-racial communities.
Remember that we have the option of charting a better course than our forbears. Remember that in the 1920s, Congress adopted a horrifyingly exclusionary immigration policy. Asian immigration was zero. The majority of permitted immigrants for the middle part of the 20th century were from a handful of white Western European nations. The nonprofit sector has a chance to rebuild America anew with a commitment to fairness, human rights, and community building with the New Millennium’s immigrants.