Philanthropic Investments in Immigrant Rights During Turbulent Times

BY: ELS DE GRAAUW & SHANNON GLEESON (equal co-authors)

In the United States, the federal government has sole power to enact immigration laws, but it does little to invest in immigrant integration. This task instead tends to fall on state and local governments, as well as philanthropic funders and the myriad community organizations they support. This has been notably true for the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an initiative of President Obama that has made temporary deportation protection and work authorization available to nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants nationwide. Some state and local governments and foreign consulate offices have provided critical resources to help connect eligible immigrants to DACA, but foundations and immigrant-serving organizations have done most of this critical implementation work. However, DACA has an uncertain future. The program’s short controversial life has been punctuated with legal challenges in 2015 and 2016, President Trump’s 2017 decision to end it in March 2018, court-ordered continuations of DACA renewal processing in January and February 2018, and ongoing congressional wrangling over a possible legislative replacement.

In studying local efforts to implement DACA, we have interviewed over 300 governmental and nongovernment stakeholders, and over 115 DACA recipients, in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Greater Houston Area, and the New York City Metro Area. Here, we focus on interviews with about 25 foundations that have invested in DACA and other immigrant rights initiatives in these three immigrant-dense metro areas. These conversations confirm that the uncertainty around DACA and other immigration policies in the United States is harming immigrant families and escalating tensions between federal and lower levels of government. However, the ongoing political volley over immigration policy is also undermining philanthropic investments in immigrant rights. This places enormous additional stress on community organizations that have long borne the brunt of helping immigrants and other vulnerable populations to access educational and employment opportunities, while keeping their families together.

Volatile Immigration Policies

While DACA faced uncertainties under Obama, the anti-immigrant policies pushed by Trump have significantly raised the stakes on several fronts. The rights of immigrants across the board have become much more volatile. This is most notably so for DACA beneficiaries, unaccompanied minors, and other undocumented immigrants, but also for refugees, recipients of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), and even long-standing categories of legal immigrants such as “diversity lottery,” family-based, and high-skilled immigrants. Many municipal and some state governments with large immigrant populations have clashed with the federal government over Trump’s hardline immigration enforcement policies. The most visible example is the struggle over sanctuary cities, with Trump calling to strip them of federal funding in late 2017 and to arrest their mayors in early 2018. As our data highlight, Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and the growing uncertainty for DACA recipients and other undocumented immigrants is also bad news for immigrant civil society, funders and providers alike. For example, Trump’s cuts to the U.S. refugee program and resettlement funding has created uncertain futures for refugee-serving organizations. Similarly, the challenges to DACA have disrupted the work of many foundations that fund community organizations to provide critical outreach and immigration legal services.

The U.S. federal government has historically invested little in immigrant integration, with the exception of refugee resettlement. There is no constitutional guarantee of access to a court-appointed lawyer for immigrants (including children) facing deportation or seeking adjustment of status, given that immigration law in the United States is a civil and not a criminal matter. These functions instead often fall to civil society organizations that provide social services, legal aid, job assistance, and other basic needs in linguistically accessible and culturally appropriate ways. A key example is the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), which has resettled millions of refugees since the waves of Jewish migration after World War II. Following the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) similarly helped undocumented immigrants to apply for this legalization program, monitored new forms of border enforcement, and litigated the law’s employer sanctions provisions. More recently, since Obama announced the DACA program in 2012, immigrant-serving organizations across the country have disseminated information about the program, provided legal counsel and technical assistance, and educated immigrants about their workplace and other rights under DACA. These organizations, while often recipients of government grants, are funded also by private donors and mission-driven foundations, which care about immigration and a range of other issues touching immigrant and native-born communities alike.

Even before the spate of legal attacks against it and Trump’s move to end the program, DACA was a challenging initiative for foundations to support. First, it is a temporary executive initiative, not a congressional law. Funding the implementation of such a politically volatile program, one that benefits undocumented immigrants to boot, gave some foundations—especially those with conservative or politically-apprehensive boards—pause. Second, while executive grants of deferred status have a long history in the United States, the wide scope of DACA—which initially was expected to benefit an estimated 1.76 million young undocumented immigrants—was unprecedented. Further, the short start-up time between its surprise announcement in June 2012 and the August 2012 application opening date required a rapid response on the ground. While foundations might be more nimble than local governments, they too struggle to respond quickly to sudden policy changes of this magnitude. Third, most foundations provided funding only for new DACA applications, even as immigrant-serving organizations have underscored the urgency of also supporting renewals after immigrants’ two-year DACA status expired. The temporary nature of DACA means that there is a recurring need for legal assistance to keep beneficiaries in status, a need not readily addressed by philanthropic funding.

Deciding Who, What, and How to Fund

Despite these challenges, foundations have funded various activities critical to supporting DACA’s implementation, and in some places they are the only sources of support for this work. Key among them was funding for outreach about the program, an effort led by organizations with years of experience working in low-income Latino and Asian neighborhoods. Funders placed a great deal of pressure on their grantees to produce turnout to educational events, a challenge especially in the Asian community, where the stigma of illegality still lingers. Foundations also funded document preparation efforts, particularly during the brief window in 2014 when it looked like deferred action was going to be expanded to the undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and green card holders. Though these expansions were eventually challenged and halted in court, these document preparation efforts helped orient applicants to the complex and daunting immigration bureaucracy. Countless organizations ran campaigns trying to keep anxious immigrants engaged, offering practical tasks to ready them in case the expansions took effect. And most prominently, foundations supported increases in professional legal services, stretching program dollars while trying to address legal counsel needs for what many still viewed as a risky application process. This prompted debates among funders and their grantees over how to build this capacity quickly and effectively, whether through expensive staff attorneys, more affordable accredited para-legal professionals, or simply passionate lay staff and volunteers.

Foundations have played critical roles also in pooling donor funding. Nationally, the funder affinity group Grant Makers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) has brought apprehensive funders on board. Regionally, large local foundations have networked with smaller local foundations and provided decisive leadership to get more risk-averse donors engaged in supporting DACA. Foundations have also convened and supported regional DACA collaboratives—such as the Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (created in 2013) and the Bay Area DACA Collaborative (created in 2012, later becoming Ready Bay Area)—to urge grantees to improve communication amongst themselves and take advantage of each other’s expertise and capacity. The result was a much more coordinated effort to conduct outreach, mass legal clinics, and one-on-one legal counsel for more complicated DACA cases.

Finally, foundations have coordinated with local governments to channel philanthropic resources to communities where they are most needed. Recognizing that much of the existing resources were concentrated in central cities, foundations sought ways to support more remote suburban and rural areas lacking DACA support organizations and transportation to access them. These efforts, to be sure, varied across place, in part because of differences in local political dynamics. For example, when local government invested in DACA implementation, as in the more progressive cities of San Francisco and New York, foundations directed their own resources to underfunded organizations working in outlying areas. In Houston, where more cautious city officials chose not to fund DACA implementation, foundations encouraged them to at least host a website with information about DACA and where to find help for those needing application assistance.

Managing Challenges

By early 2013, about two dozen foundations in the San Francisco, Houston, and New York City regions had distributed significant amounts of funding to local organizations to support DACA implementation. Some of these funds came from discretionary funding pools directed by foundation boards, others were integrated into existing program portfolios. In either case, grantee organizations have had to navigate varying metrics and reporting mechanisms imposed by funders. For example, for the New York-based Robin Hood Foundation, which emphasizes efficient and measurable returns on philanthropic investments, a key metric for their DACA funding was total number of applications their grantees submitted. Some grantees, however, struggled with how to report accurately complicated DACA cases that required significant time and resource investments, even as program officers adjusted metrics to account for such inevitable “inefficiencies.”

In other cases, immigrant rights organizations struggled to produce what foundations viewed as tangible deliverables, given that much of their focus was on time- and resource-intensive community building that extended far beyond the foundation’s grant period. Also, when grants were not renewed—because funding ran out or was redistributed to new grantees—organizations suffered disruptions, from which they did not always recover. Some programs closed and staff were laid off, forcing organizations to retool. Finally, foundations confronted challenges coordinating the work of multiple grantees active in the same region, often aiming to avoid duplication of efforts as they distributed funding among them. In the process, they had to address inherent competition among applicants and concerns that foundation funding often reified existing power inequities among smaller and bigger, as well as newer and more established, immigrant-serving organizations.

DACA’s growing political uncertainties have exacerbated these challenges. They have made some risk-averse funders skittish, and as a result some decided to distribute funding more slowly, reduce it, or withhold it altogether. Others instead have pivoted their funding from direct legal services to education outreach, immigration fraud prevention, and the less controversial naturalization process. Questions also arose about the target beneficiaries of these funds as President Obama planned to expand deferred action in 2014. For example, youth-focused funders argued that the new DAPA program, aimed at the undocumented parents of U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident children, was no longer a good a fit for their funding portfolio. The 2015 and 2016 legal challenges against Obama’s immigration initiatives further chilled philanthropic momentum for funding deferred action. While these legal challenges gave immigrant-serving organizations valuable time to prepare for possible DACA program expansions, many foundations by this point were less willing to fund outreach and legal services to the same extent as before.

The Need for Funding to Make Immigrant Rights Real

DACA provides important lessons about the organizational infrastructure necessary to make immigrant rights real in the United States. Temporary and politically volatile immigration policies wreak havoc on immigrant communities, as well as the organizations that scramble to support them. The recent experiences of programs such as DACA, TPS, and refugee resettlement underscore the need for longer-term legislative reform and concomitant investments in immigrant civil society. A broader vision of the causes of immigration, including issues of economic development in sending regions, the importance of family reunification, and the human rights implications of deportation policies—all core concerns of civil society organizations—is also critical. Meanwhile, congressional immigration debates must include commitments to public investments in immigrant integration and a concrete plan for how to leverage existing philanthropic funding in this area. Until this happens, the immigrant-serving organizations that have long been a hallmark of the American charitable tradition will suffer, some irreparably, as will the diverse immigrant communities they support.


Els de Graauw is Associate Professor of Political Science at Baruch College, the City University of New York. She is the author of Making Immigrant Rights Real: Nonprofits and the Politics of Integration in San Francisco (Cornell University Press, 2016).


Shannon Gleeson is Associate Professor of Labor Relations, Law, and History at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She is the author of Precarious Claims: The Promise and Failure of Workplace Protections in the United States (University of California Press, 2016).

They have also co-authored How Local Stakeholders Are Implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (2016) and An Institutional Examination of the Local Implementation of the DACA Program (2016).