What About LGBT Refugees in the United States?

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A line in a recent Christian Science Monitor article asks, “Are children fleeing Central American violence refugees who need asylum or illegal gold-diggers who need to go home?”

Politicians, talking heads, policymakers, and those of us interested in immigration have been transfixed by the surge of unaccompanied minors at our southern border. Whether these children are refugees worthy of asylum will eventually be determined by immigration courts, if and when their cases finally get there.

Another group fleeing violence but not getting as much press — if any at all — are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) refugees. In a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the Heartland Alliance estimates that around 3,500 LGBT refugees arrive in the country annually. Another 1,250 are granted asylum every year.

Arriving in small numbers, they tend to fly under the public’s radar. Some also choose to remain in the shadows, due in part to the conservatism of their own ethnic communities. LGBT refugees might enjoy more freedoms here, but they often live among fellow immigrants, who tend to be more socially and religiously conservative than native-born Americans.

Queer women and men flee their homelands because of the oppression they suffer based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. They are routinely subject to human rights abuses, including sexual assault and corrective rape, physical violence, torture, imprisonment, and murder. In Iran, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen, and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, people can be put to death for same-sex conduct. In an additional 76 countries, LGBTs can be imprisoned for living openly. While gay and transgender people are still subject to discrimination in some parts of the United States, their rights are generally and increasingly protected.

In a post for Urban Institute’s MetroTrends Blog, I discussed the crucial role immigrant organizations play in the lives of immigrants. These community-based nonprofits are community centers, social service providers, advocates, and network builders. They prop up the immigrant safety net. However, there are not enough to serve the needs of immigrant communities.

There are far fewer organizations for refugees. In 2012, over 58,179 refugees were admitted into the country and 29,484 individuals were granted asylum. A quick search on the National Center for Charitable Statistics database reveals a mere 128 community-based organizations dedicated to refugee relief.

Aside from limited capacities, these organizations are rarely equipped to deal with the housing, employment, medical, mental health, safety, and legal needs of LGBT refugees. While gay and transgender refugees avail of the same services as other refugees, they benefit from a sensitivity resulting from an awareness of queer concerns and realities. In 2011, ORR Director Eskinder Negash expressed concern for the lack of resource materials tailored for LGBT refugees, which are critical to their successful resettlement and integration: “The current resettlement network has limited understanding of the LGBT community.”

A lot of work is left to be done, from advancing international and domestic policies protecting queer refugees to increasing the number and capacities of refugee relief and resettlement organizations. But it all begins with education and storytelling. A trickle of LGBT refugees, however, simply isn’t as compelling as a tsunami of undocumented child migrants.

Originally posted on Urban Institute’s MetroTrends Blog and the Huffington Post.

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How immigrant organizations can help with integration

immigrationCamp

Originally posted on Urban Institute’s MetroTrends Blog.

Last week, a National Academies panel met to explore how institutions impact the integration of foreign-born individuals and their children. “The Integration of Immigrants into US Society” convening, hosted by the Academies’ Committee on Population, was part of a two-year project that will culminate in the release of a report summarizing knowledge about how immigrants are integrating into American society, laying out the policy implications of the panel’s findings, and highlighting crucial knowledge and data gaps.

Among the institutions vital to immigrant communities are nonprofits founded and tailored to address the needs and issues of the many racial and ethnic groups that make up our society. At the panel’s second meeting, I discussed immigrant organizations and integration, based on Urban Institute reports on community-based organizations and immigrant integration and immigrant legal-aid organizations and my own exploration of Filipino-American organizations.

Immigrant organizations are crucial to the lives of immigrants, their families, and communities. They act as community centers where newcomers can be among others who speak their language and where they can learn to navigate life in their adopted country. They are safe places where second- and third-generation immigrants can learn about their ethnic culture.

These centers also double as social service providers, especially in places that are not so welcoming, where immigrants don’t have access to health and other social services. Immigrant nonprofits also act as advocates and representatives and promote the civic and political engagement of newcomers.

They also partner with other organizations and build networks, broadening the net that supports immigrants and the community in general. They serve as channels through which funders, government agencies, and elected officials can reach immigrants.

Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán, who studies immigrant organizations in New York, argues that these nonprofits “play a central role during all parts of the immigration process and in the social, cultural, political, and economic” integration of immigrants. Immigrant organizations help individuals and families find a community, achieve economic stability and self-sufficiency, learn and participate in a new social and political system, and become legal residents or citizens.

These indispensable organizations, however, tend to cluster around urban centers, away from suburbs and exurbs where immigrants have been settling down. It will take time before immigrant organizations are established and scale up; in the meantime, immigrants trek into cities or are left to their own devices.

Moreover, immigrant organizations tend to be underresourced and stretched to capacity due to the great demand for their services. Immigrant legal aid nonprofits, in particular, will have a challenging time serving undocumented immigrants eligible for legalization, should immigration reform pass.

Immigrant nonprofits are important to immigrants, but they can only do so much. Other nonprofits, public agencies, philanthropic groups, and community entities can partner with immigrant organizations in facilitating immigrant integration, and in the process, strengthen and enrich the entire community.

Hector Estrada, top center, who teaches social justice in a theater setting at the Refugee Youth Academy, addresses a group of immigrant students at the academy in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The Refugee Youth Academy is a six-week program run by the International Rescue Committee that tries to help refugee parents and children get familiar with what American school is all about. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

The unexamined element of immigration reform

Now that the government shutdown has ended and the debt limit lifted, President Obama has shifted his attention to immigration reform. He argues that it is imperative that the broken immigration system be fixed once and for all. Considering the bruising everyone just went through, it is hard to imagine lawmakers duking it out over another contentious issue.

Imagine that comprehensive immigration legislation does manage to clear Congress and the White House. Will systems be in place to handle the surge of immigrants who will be eligible for legalization? I cannot speak to the capacities of federal and state governments, but I can begin the conversation on the nonprofit infrastructure that helps immigrants integrate.

The U.S. Senate immigration reform bill that passed last June includes a path to citizenship for a vast majority of undocumented immigrants. The Congressional Budget Office estimates about 8 million will be eligible and apply for regularization of their status. The process will be long, arduous, and costly. But before they embark on this path, individuals will need, first and foremost, legal assistance in understanding the process and submitting applications.

Unauthorized immigrants, who are mostly low-income, will have few resources, if any at all, to secure the services of immigration attorneys. Many will turn to immigrant-serving nonprofits providing free legal information and advice. A new Urban Institute brief provides an outline of these organizations.

An analysis of data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics indicates at least 684 nonprofits provide some form of legal aid to immigrants. These providers are dispersed throughout the United States and can be found where immigrant communities have settled.

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 It appears, however, that there aren’t enough of them. In the 10 states with the largest populations of undocumented immigrants, nonprofits that provide legal services to immigrants would have more people to serve than other nonprofits. For instance, in Texas, there is one nonprofit providing legal aid to immigrants for every 41,250 undocumented clients. In contrast, the ratio of other nonprofits to the general population is 1 to 2,916.

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In the top 10 states with the largest percentage change in undocumented immigrants, nonprofits that provide legal services to immigrants potentially have a larger population to serve compared to other nonprofits. For instance, in Maryland, the ratio of nonprofits that provide legal aid to immigrants to potential undocumented clients in 1 to 27,500. In contrast, the ratio of other nonprofits to the general population is 1 to 2,182. Alabama is a stark case, where the two nonprofits that provide legal services to immigrants could face an estimated 120,000 undocumented individuals.

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This very high ratio of undocumented immigrants to potential sources of nonprofit legal aid should be a cause for concern. Adding thousands of new cases to existing caseloads without substantial infusion of resources—funding and staffing and volunteers—is not a realistic scenario.

The infrastructure for assisting undocumented immigrants with legal issues is very thin, compared to the projected needs. A concerted effort to assess capacity and plan for expansion is required. Further analysis will help identify where and how infrastructure and capacity can be built to prepare for comprehensive immigration reform. In the meantime funders and other stakeholders can step up and support this research.

Originally posted on Urban Institute’s MetroTrends.

Are Immigrant Aid Organizations Ready for Reform?

(Photo: Flickr/SEIU International)

(Photo: Flickr/SEIU International)

On Oct. 8, thousands rallied at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. then marched to the Capitol demanding that Congress pass comprehensive immigration reform immediately. A reported 200 people got themselves arrested to underscore the urgency of the matter, among them union and community leaders and eight Democratic lawmakers including civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis.

When lawmakers finally do attend to immigration reform, a path to some form of legalization will be part of the equation. The Weekly Standard reports, “84 House Republicans have publicly voiced support for granting some type of legal status to the 11 million immigrants here in the country illegally, and 20 others have said they would be willing to consider it.” Legislation that regularizes the status of over 11 million undocumented individuals will be a long-awaited boon to immigrants and their families. But will they have the support they need to go through what will undoubtedly be a long and arduous process?

Immigrants without papers will be required to meet stringent requirements such as passing background checks, paying penalties and fines, and learning English, U.S. history, and civics. They will also have to deal with a complex application process that will require legal expertise and guidance.

Some people will have the wherewithal to hire private attorneys. Michelle Sardone, field support coordinator of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), said however that those without the means will either turn to community-based organizations (CBOs) for help or attempt to file applications themselves. But, are immigrant-serving nonprofits ready to help millions of undocumented individuals and their families through the legalization process?

Constantino Diaz-Duran, a New York-based journalist, wonders himself. He worked as a legal assistant for Hogar Immigrant Services in the mid-2000s, helping Central Americans extend their Temporary Protected Status (TPS). Over 300,000 Salvadorans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans were eligible for TPS — a status offered by the U.S. to immigrants affected by natural disasters in the region — and many turned to CBOs for assistance. As part of a team of three full-time attorneys, a few legal assistants, and an army of volunteers, Diaz-Duran sat with immigrants, going through checklists and forms.

“I would be surprised if they are ready, there are so many people,” said Diaz-Duran. “I do think immigrant-aid organizations need to start thinking of organizing and training volunteers. There will be a huge influx of people. I’ve thought of volunteering myself.”

Diaz-Duran’s concerns are well-founded. An Urban Institute study I co-authored identifies less than 700 nonprofits nationwide that provide some form of legal aid to immigrants. Their limited capacity could not possibly meet the demand for services when immigration reform finally passes. In Maryland, for instance, the ratio of nonprofits providing legal aid to immigrants to potential undocumented clients is 1 to 27,500. Alabama is a particularly stark case: two nonprofits provide legal services to the estimated 120,000 undocumented individuals in the state.

Sardone said CLINIC is preparing its 218 affiliates in 47 states for comprehensive immigration reform. The DC-based organization recently released a manual that offers recommendations from nonprofit immigration experts and “veterans” of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which facilitated the legalization of close to 3 million individuals. It also includes lessons learned from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Sardone and some practitioners view as a test run of immigration reform.

“We are preparing our network,” Sardone said. “We’re telling them to start putting together plans, consider what it would look like in their areas to implement [comprehensive immigration reform].” For some, this means getting recognized and accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals to legally represent clients. For others, it means finalizing fundraising strategies or incorporating volunteers.

Other networks are also laying the groundwork. Marita Etcubanez, director of programs at the Asian American Justice Center, points to a convening earlier this year by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement and the Center for Community Change, which brought together immigration advocates from around the country to share experiences from past reform legislation, as well as to discuss ramping up organizational capacity to meet an anticipated surge in demand for assistance and legal representation.

“There is a great deal to do to prepare, and we will have to work with immigration legal service providers, legal aid groups, other advocacy groups and community-based organizations because we know people will be seeking assistance wherever they can,” said Etcubanez. “We will also have to do widespread outreach and education so that our communities are aware of the changes to the law, have good information about what is available and who is eligible, and know where they can find help.”

Jeanne M. Atkinson, executive director of CLINIC, recalled her experience as a law intern working with immigrant communities after the passage of immigration reform in 1986. “Back then, there was a minimal number of agencies and limited technology,” she said. “We jumped in a minivan, drove to local community and health centers, wherever immigrants were, put up our sign, and provided information to people.”

It’s a different world now. There are a whole lot more CBOs working together to prepare for immigration reform. But in 1986, the number of undocumented immigrants was estimated at 3.2 million. Today there are more than 11 million.

Atkinson says nonprofits will face many hurdles. “The biggest issue is funding, they need the money to hire volunteer coordinators and other staff and to upgrade their technology.” She is nonetheless pleased with the preparation nonprofits, their networks and their community partners are taking. “We’re getting ready.”

Immigrant-serving groups better get ready. Comprehensive immigration reform will happen at some point and there will be millions who will turn to community-based nonprofits for help.

Originally posted on Feet in 2 Worlds and the Huffington Post.

Asian American Philanthropists and Asian American Needs

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Photo: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

January 8, 2013; Source: New York Times

The Pew Research Center heralded, six months ago, the rise of Asian Americans, noting that they are “the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success.”

This perpetuation of the model minority myth – as not all Asian Americans are wealthy, healthy and wise – continues in a recent New York Times article which announces the arrival of the Asian American philanthropic class: affluent immigrants and their children who have joined other one or two percenters in bailing others out via their noblesse oblige. The article describes “elegant galas” where wealthy Koreans “dined on beef tenderloin with truffle butter, bid on ski and golf vacations in a charity auction, and gave more than $1 million to a nonprofit group.” The article goes on to note that wealthy Asian Americans are also looking beyond their communities and generously donating to “prestigious universities, museums, concert halls and hospitals — like Yale University and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” It isn’t difficult to imagine the impetus. They have indeed arrived and want to see their names on donor lists and placards along with other fabulously rich Americans.

We live in a free country and people are free to choose how to spend their money. However, charitable deductions are lost government revenue which could be used on programs and services that benefit struggling Americans. Institutions like Yale are more than adequately endowed. Smaller nonprofits, including less pedigreed colleges, are in more dire need of donations. Community-based nonprofits that pull up those Asian Americans who are not so fortunate could use more dollars from those Asian Americans who have “made it.” Perhaps these new members of the elite donor club would consider focusing their largesse on organizations that might not be as glamorous but that address the ongoing issues and unmet needs of the Asian American community.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly Newswire, January 14, 2013.

Community-Based Organizations Helped Deliver Asian American Vote

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November 8, 2012; Source: Bloomberg

In the week since Election Day, much has been made of how the Latino vote helped deliver another term to President Barack Obama, and rightfully so. Asian American groups, however, want to make sure that we also know that the Asian vote, while not as large, was also crucial on November 6th.

Less than 24 hours after the President Obama won reelection, the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD) and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) released a statement touting the fact that, while only four in ten Asian American voters identify as Democrats, they “broke for Barack Obama by a huge margin, with 72% voting for the President and 26% for Mitt Romney.” In congressional races, seven in ten Asian American voters also backed Democratic candidates.

Lisa Hasegawa, National CAPACD’s executive director, believes that the Romney campaign and the Republican Party lost valuable votes by ignoring Asian Americans. “Mitt Romney had room to win the overlooked Asian American community,” said Hasegawa. “While Barack Obama’s narrative attracted Asian American voters, Mitt Romney missed an enormous opportunity to offer a direct appeal to this group.” Hasegawa also acknowledges the pivotal role of community-based organizations in mobilizing Asian Americans. “Community organizations’ efforts are especially critical in getting Asian Americans to the polls when traditional party vehicles ignore this demographic,” she said. “National CAPACD supported 25 groups in 14 states over the election season to help educate Asian American and Pacific Islander voters and get them to the polls on Election Day.”

Another group that energized the diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities was the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) and its local Cambodian, Hmong, Lao and Vietnamese community-based affiliates. These immigrant-serving nonprofits focused on voter outreach and education in areas with high concentrations of Southeast Asian American eligible voters. According to a statement released by SEARAC Executive Director Doua Thor, “Because of the high numbers of Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, and Vietnamese in areas like the Central Valley of California and the Twin Cities in Minnesota, our communities had a real potential to impact the vote in these parts.”

KAYA Filipino Americans for Progress, a tech-savvy grassroots organization founded in 2008 to support then-Sen. Obama’s first presidential run, was likewise key in mobilizing the second largest AAPI group in California and in the “swing states” of Nevada and Virginia. As the United States transforms into a majority minority nation, it would be folly for any political party to ignore communities of color and the organizations that serve and mobilize them.

Originally posted on Nonprofit Quarterly Nonprofit Newswire, November 13, 2012.