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) 

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Moving Beyond Marriage Equality

A couple of days ago, my husband and I were interviewed by an immigration adjudicator. The gentleman deemed our relationship legit, approved us on the spot, and told us to expect a green card in the mail. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling upending Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), he treated our marriage just like any other. My spouse and I are very fortunate.

Not all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) immigrants are as fortunate, however. The Williams Institute estimates that about 7,000 gay couples are both non-citizens, and that approximately 267,000 undocumented immigrants identify as LGBT. These individuals do not benefit from the Supreme Court’s ruling, but they will benefit from comprehensive immigration reform. A path to legalization will free them from the shadows to become more productive, engaged, and committed members of our society.

On Thursday, the president once again called for passage of immigration reform. He rightfully argues that fixing our immigration system is good for our economy and our national security, and, ultimately, for all of us.

“It doesn’t make sense to have 11 million people who are in this country illegally without any incentive or any way for them to come out of the shadows, get right with the law, meet their responsibilities and permit their families then to move ahead,” President Obama said. “It’s not smart. It’s not fair. It doesn’t make sense.”

As we celebrate breathtaking progress on the marriage equality front, we need to be mindful that other pressing issues beset our community. We can be fired in 29 states for being ourselves. Our transgender sisters and brothers are not welcome in the military. We suffer poverty more than straight people, especially those of us who are of color. And too many in our community are further marginalized by their immigration status. Just as we rallied behind the freedom to marry, let us rally behind the freedom to live, love, and work in this country of immigrants.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post.

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.

Immigration: At the Intersection of Race and Sexual Orientation

Last month, I had to stop working because immigration authorities told me so. This week, I am cutting my vacation short because they want to “capture” my biometrics. But it’s all good. After 23 years dealing with our immigration system, it looks like I finally have a clear path to citizenship. Granted, an additional six years at least, but an end is nonetheless in sight. Now that my marriage is recognized by the federal government, my American husband has sponsored me for a green card. My immigration status changed, so I had to resign from my job. Our application is apparently moving along, so the United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) wants to record my biometrics. The work permit, provisional green card, permanent green card, and finally, citizenship, should follow in good order within the next few years, barring any surprises.

I am one of the luckier ones. Many of “my people” – queer folks and Asians – are not as fortunate.

Most Americans think of immigration as a Latino issue. Many are beginning to learn, however, that it is also an Asian issue. About 9 percent of undocumented immigrants are from Asia. Family reunification stymied by backlogs is a major concern for Asian Americans.

Some Americans might think that immigration is no longer a gay issue since Americans and U.S. permanent residents can now sponsor their same-gender spouses. But immigration remains an LGBT issue. At least 267,000 undocumented LGBT adult immigrants live in the United States. A mere fraction are married to citizens or permanent residents. Individuals persecuted for their sexual orientation and gender identity flee their home countries to seek refuge in our country.

The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) recently released Uncovering Our Stories: The Voices of LGBT AAPI Immigrants, a campaign to help the public understand that immigration intersects ethnicity and sexual orientation. Linda Khoy, daughter of Cambodian refugees, relates how her family painfully learned the difference between being permanent residents and U.S. citizens when her sister was put into deportation proceedings. Urooj Arshad, a Pakistani immigrant, talks about the unique challenges faced by queer Muslims of color. Alex Ong, an Indonesian asylee, explains why he is unable to reunite with his parents who had been denied refuge in the U.S. I also tell my story and share why I care about immigration reform, even though I now have a way out of the deep immigration tunnel so many immigrants find themselves in.

Immigration is not one racial group’s issue. Neither is it a straight or queer issue. Immigration impacts all of us and it is an issue that desperately needs to be addressed.

Also on the Huffington Post.

Uncovering Our Stories: Erwin de Leon from Mia Nakano & Visibility Project on Vimeo.