Immigrant organizations key to carrying out Obama’s executive action

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Last Thursday, the president laid out his long-anticipated executive action on immigration, which grants reprieve from deportation to an estimated 4 million undocumented immigrants, individuals who have lived here for at least five years and have no criminal record. Now, many people will be able to work legally without fearing deportation and separation from their families and communities.

The executive action also expands the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to include young immigrants—DREAMers—who have aged out; provide visas for foreign nationals who invest in the US economy and those who pursue science, technology, engineering, and math degrees in US universities; and add security personnel and resources at the border. The executive action, however, does not include farm workers or the undocumented parents of DREAMers. Moreover, none of the beneficiaries will receive public subsidies under the Affordable Care Act or will be eligible for public benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Undocumented immigrants who want to request this reprieve will have to submit an application for deferred action, a process that can be demanding and does not guarantee automatic approval. An individual will have to provide documents proving she meets eligibility requirements, complete multiple government forms, pay taxes and fees, pass a criminal background check, submit her biometrics, and then wait to hear whether her application has been approved. The process can be daunting.

A majority of undocumented individuals are low income and will encounter challenges with the requisite paperwork, application forms, and fees. They will have few resources, if any, to secure the services of immigration attorneys. Some will fall prey to notarios, others will hire expensive lawyers they cannot afford, and many will turn to immigrant-serving nonprofits that provide free legal assistance and other social services. These community-based organizations are best suited to help immigrants with the legalization process and, in the long run, with integration into the economic, political, and social mainstream.

An Urban Institute brief on immigrant legal-aid organizations reveals, however, that these nonprofits are few and far between and that capacity is a major issue. Analysis of National Center for Charitable Statistics data indicates that at least 684 nonprofits provide some form of legal aid to immigrants and are dispersed throughout the United States in traditional, emerging, and new immigrant gateways. But the ratio of legal-aid nonprofits to potential undocumented immigrants is alarming.

In the 10 states with the most undocumented immigrants, nonprofits that provide legal services to immigrants would have more people to serve than other nonprofits. For instance, in Texas, the ratio of immigrant legal-aid nonprofits to potential undocumented clients is 1 to 41,250. In contrast, the ratio of other nonprofits to the general population is 1 to 2,916.

Immigrants

As undocumented immigrants start applying for deportation reprieve, legal-aid and other immigrant-serving organizations will bear the brunt of helping these individuals. Aside from assisting in the deferred action application process, these groups will continue providing basic social services, as beneficiaries of the president’s executive action will not have access to free health care and other safety net programs available to US citizens and permanent residents. It is crucial to identify, map, and survey immigrant-serving organizations to determine their capacities and challenges in serving immigrant communities. This information will be invaluable in discovering where the gaps in resources and services are so that they may be filled and that more immigrants can join the mainstream.

Originally posted on Urban Institute’s MetroTrends blog. Reposted on the Huffington Post.

Photo: President Barack Obama announces immigration executive action on Thursday, November 20, 2014 at the White House. (AP Photo/Jim Bourg, Pool) 

How immigrant organizations can help with integration

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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)