News and analysis
December 16, 2014

President’s Changes on Immigration Mobilize Nonprofits, Foundations

Monica Almeida/The New York Times/Redux

Isabel Medina, a member of the Coalition For Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, hands out information at the National Immigration Integration Conference in Los Angeles, Dec. 14, 2014.

August 15, 2012, was a historic day for immigrants in America: the start of a new program created by President Obama in a surprise executive action. The program allowed "dreamers" — young undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children — to apply for conditional residency.

For some immigrant advocates, however, that moment of great promise turned into hours of chaos. The lines of people waiting for assistance from the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles stretched for blocks in stifling heat. At Chicago’s Navy Pier, roughly 15,000 people turned up for an education, screening, and application workshop — twice as many as organizers could help.

Ultimately, the effort paid off. More than half of the 1.2-million dreamers eligible at the start of the program applied within two years. Next year, advocates will face an even more daunting task in what might be thought of as Round 2: mobilizing to help undocumented immigrants who are eligible for temporary legal status under the president’s executive action on immigration announced in November.

All together, an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants may be eligible. The number presents a challenge that dwarfs what advocates faced with the dreamers. Groups will have to reach far outside the cities, where many focused their earlier efforts, to extend their outreach to rural and migrant farmworker communities. They also will have to reach older immigrants, many of whom have fewer language and literacy skills than the dreamers.

As a group, the older immigrants may be hesitant to step forward. Many have stayed in the shadows to avoid deportation, and they fear that as a Republican majority takes over Congress, the president’s action could be blocked.

Advocates says the large number of potentially eligible immigrants means more resources will be needed than were deployed for the program to help the dreamers — more lawyers to help with applications, more boots on the ground to spread the word, and more cash to finance loans to cover the application fees.

The coalition group in Los Angeles, for example, expects to double its team of lawyers to 22 and open six new satellite offices. Catholic Charities of Central Texas, which ran a few workshops in big cities such as Waco and Bryan to sign up dreamers, is planning eight education sessions and at least a dozen workshops for applicants, some to be held in farming areas of the 25 counties the group serves.

"We’re preparing for many, many people to come," says Christina Vehar, a coordinator of the effort.

Where’s the Money?

How to pay for all this was a prime topic at a meeting of nonprofits, lawyers, and bar association members convened by the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition in Washington, D.C. "People around the table kept saying ‘Resources, resources, resources,’ " says Kathy Doan, executive director of the group. "Nobody on the ground currently has the resources."

National and local foundations are meeting now to coordinate their support. "There will be, I hope, a sizable flow of funding," says Tara Magner, program officer with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has been funding projects to help build a foundation for mobilization. MacArthur, she says, "will make some sizable investments in the infrastructure in the short term and see what the needs are going forward."

Jeanne Atkinson, co-chair of the Committee for Immigration Reform Implementation, a new national coalition of groups to support mobilization throughout the country, estimates that nationally it will cost as much as $60 million to help eligible immigrants apply — a number she says some advocates call a "gross underestimation."

Ms. Atkinson, who is also executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, is expecting help from, among others, the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, and the Open Society Foundations.

To each, she will argue that getting work permits and deportation protection for so many immigrants will "be life-altering for the individuals, for their families, for their communities, and for the country. This has a cost. But we’re all going to get paid back at the end of the day."

Antonia Hernández, chief executive of the California Community Foundation, is convening a meeting of about half a dozen local foundations to establish a pool of money to make available to the grassroots nonprofits that will organize the mobilization campaign in Los Angeles County, where an estimated half-million undocumented immigrants may be eligible. Among those likely to be involved, she says, are the California Endowment, the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, and the James Irvine Foundation.

Ms. Hernandez expects that foundations will commit at least $3-million to the Los Angeles effort in a first round of support. "Three million at the beginning gives us a good foundation," she says. "That’s a significant amount of money."

The Irvine Foundation, which is focusing statewide, invested only $250,000 in the dreamers’ campaign, according to Amy Dominguez-Arms, vice president of programs. Since then it’s put more priority on immigration issues in a state where as many as 1.6 million individuals might be eligible under the president’s action. "We understand the scope is so much more significant" with this effort, she says. "We haven’t put a dollar figure on what we’re going to do, but I know we’ll do quite a significantly higher scale."

Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, hopes the state and local governments will also step up. "We have some incredible leaders in philanthropy who’ve been in the vanguard," she says, "but they can’t replace what government should be doing."

Ahead of the Game

While the matter of funding is being discussed, immigrant advocates are building mobilization campaigns that expand on and improve efforts designed to aid the dreamers, based on lessons learned.

"In many ways," says Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, as the earlier measure was called, "was a training ground for this much larger program."

Having expected action by Mr. Obama or major reforms in Congress, advocates got to work long before the president’s November executive action.

In 2013, when Congress was taking up immigration-reform legislation, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights launched Illinois Is Ready, a campaign to mobilize immigrants whenever a bill emerged. Though Congress never acted, that campaign now has a ready-made platform to build on for the president’s executive action.

According to the Illinois immigrant-rights group, the campaign involves advocacy and legal-services groups but also the governor’s and Chicago mayor’s offices; state and local agencies; consulates from countries such as Mexico, Ireland, and Poland; foundations such as the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust; and even public libraries.

The campaign is now conducting outreach and education training for traditional community-based organizations as well as others that interact with immigrants, including health-care providers and government agencies. "We’re coordinating with really anyone and everyone," says Ruth Lopez-McCarthy, implementation director of the Illinois coalition.

In California, 11 organizations, including the United Farm Workers Foundation, came together in 2013 under the umbrella Ready California.

Among other things, the coalition surveyed more than 170 organizations statewide to identify regions that don’t have the infrastructure to reach potential applicants. If the funding works out, Ready California hopes to create a statewide entity to make resources, such as legal-service providers, available in areas of need.

In the Washington, D.C., area, Ms. Doan’s Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition is working with at least 15 nonprofits as well law firms and local bar associations. In the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy follow-up, she notes, some states have seen less than a third of eligible dreamers apply.

"We don’t want a repeat of that," she says. "We want to make sure that everyone who is eligible applies."

Correction: An earlier version had an error in Amy Dominguez-Arms' title. She is vice president of programs, not policy.

Send an e-mail to Drew Lindsay.