Women holding a poster reading "One Nation under God Indivisible with Liberty and Justice for All #NoBanNoWall”
Paul Sableman [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

These days, as NPQ has covered, immigrants, both without and with documents, are under attack. Whether the means involve border walls, travel bans, separating parents from children, cuts to refugee and asylum admissions, restricted access to federal benefits, rules permitting indefinite detention, or efforts to add a citizenship question to the census, the hostility to immigrants and people of color has been consistent throughout. At the same time, this has also been a period of intense immigrant-rights movement building and organizing.

An eight-page brief released this spring by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), authored by Ryan Schlegel, Stephanie Peng and Timi Gerson and titled “State of Foundation Funding for the Pro-Immigrant Movement,” examines immigrant rights philanthropy from 2014 through 2016. Their report asks a critical question: Can philanthropy that supports immigrant rights make a difference?

Clearly, many of the people that Schlegel and his team interview think the answer is yes. As one respondent told the NCRP researchers:1

What would help me the most in terms of doing my work is actually having [the] local grassroots funded to their full capacity, because then we can develop strategy…when we have really thriving local organizations that are thinking about structural change, that are thinking about their members’ needs, and are thinking about the national campaigns that can be vehicles for their work, that’s when we are able to really thrive.

Still, the 2014–2016 dates, a time in which attacks on immigrations were climbing rapidly, are telling. A good part of the brief has an investigative feel, asking, “Where was philanthropy?” In 2016, as Donald Trump ran for the presidency, NCRP estimates that total support for immigrant rights groups from the nation’s 1,000 largest foundations was a paltry $124 million, less than one percent of spending by those foundations and roughly 40 cents per capita.

This question seems especially pertinent, given that it is blindingly obvious—in hindsight, at least—that during the 2014–2016 period, anti-immigrant forces were already in political ascendancy. Even ignoring the final outcome of the 2016 presidential election, the mere fact that the Republican presidential nomination went to a candidate who campaigned on an avowedly anti-immigrant platform showed how pressure had ratcheted up.

Perhaps part of philanthropy’s hesitation to get involved is because philanthropy, just like the country as a whole, has often been divided on immigration. Immigrants in the US have often faced hostility. Federal laws restricting immigration to the US date back to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Robert Zeidel, writing last year for Smithsonian’s website, recalls the Dillingham Commission of a century ago that exemplified “Americans’ simultaneous feelings of fascination and fear toward the millions of migrants who have made the United States their home.” Sound familiar? The Commission—comprising three US senators, three representatives, and three “experts” selected by President Theodore Roosevelt—was formed in 1907, releasing a 41-volume report in 1911.

Many sections of the Dillingham report supported immigration, but the parts remembered reinforced popular stereotypes against immigrants. For instance, at one point, the report authors wrote, “In the popular mind, crimes of personal violence, robbery, blackmail, and extortion are peculiar to the people of Italy and it cannot be denied that the number of such offences committed among Italians in this country warrants the prevalence of such a belief.” Findings from the Dillingham commission helped justify the adoption of a strict immigration quota system in 1921, which remained in effect until 1965.

Now, with anti-immigrant sentiment rising again, where did philanthropic supporters of immigrant rights groups focus their efforts? What was done—and what should have been done—are central questions that inform the NCRP brief.

Three key findings are the following:

  • Support for immigrants’ rights groups had a narrow base: “According to Foundation Center data,” the NCRP team reports, “between 2011 and 2015, barely one percent of all money granted by the 1,000 largest US foundations was intended to benefit immigrants and refugees. Eleven foundations were responsible for over half the funding that immigrant rights groups did receive.”
  • Few dollars went to state and local groups: To the extent that immigrants