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.

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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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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.

Sequestration and Risk to Nonprofits

In a few days, sequestration hits unless Congress and the White House agree on an alternative to $85 billion in automatic spending cuts. Thousands of human service organizations would be affected, along with the communities, families, and individuals that depend heavily on nonprofit programs and services.

An Urban Institute national survey of human service organizations determined that in 2009, over 30,000 nonprofits had about 200,000 contracts and grants from federal, state, and local governments amounting to $100 billion. Government funding accounted for over 65 percent of the total revenue of organizations surveyed. Sixty percent of nonprofits said government contracts and grants were their largest funding source.

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Among nonprofits that consider government contracts and grants as their largest source of revenue, 4 in 10 medium to large organizations (those with budgets over $250,000 a year), and 3 in 10 small nonprofits reported the federal government as their largest funder. Four in 10 of all human service organizations also said state governments, which act as conduits for federal monies, were their largest revenue source.

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Sequestration would damage human service organizations that contract with the government. A report from the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and Related Agencies warns that automatic cuts on nondefense programs “would have destructive impacts on the whole array of federal activities that promote and protect the middle class in this country—everything from education to job training, medical research, child care, worker safety, food safety, national parks, border security, and safe air travel.”

Head Start, for instance, which provides grants for early childhood services for low-income families, stands to lose close to $622 million, which would result in 96,179 fewer children served. The Community Services Block Grant, which funds 1,100 community action agencies that offer crucial services to low-income families and individuals, is slated to lose over $677 million, which could lead to 1.5 million fewer individuals assisted.

During the Great Recession, human services organizations’ revenue from all sources, including governments, fell. In 2009, nonprofits resorted to various cutbacks including freezing or reducing employee salaries, drawing on reserves, and laying off employees. Some took drastic steps such as cutting back on programs and services and serving fewer people.

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Should sequestration be allowed to take effect, human service nonprofits would lose billions of dollars in government funding and might have to make difficult choices, such as laying off much-needed staff, or worse, ending programs and serving far fewer clients. Ultimately, individuals and families who are just starting to recover from the economic downturn would suffer.

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

PILOTs: A symptom of changing nonprofit-government relations

The finances of U.S. cities and municipalities are getting squeezed by decreasing state and federal funding, leaving elected officials little choice but to scrounge for new revenue sources. During the past year, a steadily increasing number of municipalities have turned to neighborhood nonprofits and negotiated “voluntary payments”– payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) – to help pay for public services. It’s time, local governments say, for these tax-exempt organizations to do their fair share.

Local governments have mainly targeted “eds and meds,” larger nonprofit universities and medical institutions. Last fall, the city of Worcester negotiated agreements with area colleges, and Clark University signed on to pay the city $6.7 million over 20 years, the Worcester Telegram reported. In New York, Syracuse University agreed earlier this summer to help out its struggling hometown with a $2.5 million payment over the next five years, according to the local press.

PILOTs aren’t new. By Lincoln Institute of Land Policy calculations, these arrangements have been already used in at least 117 municipalities in 18 states over the last decade. In Boston, nonprofit organizations have been making these payments of their own volition for decades. In April however, the city officially asked 40 major hospitals, universities and cultural centers to pay up to 25 percent of what they would owe if their properties weren’t tax-exempt. The task force that came up with the idea also suggested that all nonprofits with properties worth $15 million or more contribute as well.

Some municipalities however are beginning to eye smaller nonprofits with little or no taxable properties. In May, the town manager of Palmer, Mass., goaded by budget shortfalls and Boston’s lead, asked 25 nonprofits, including churches and a youth summer camp, to chip in annual payments. The amounts requested ranged from $75.95 from the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce to $115,572.90 from Wing Memorial Hospital, according to The Springfield Republican. Essentially requiring payments that have until now been voluntary, as Boston has done, raises the question of what is happening to the implicit compact between nonprofits and governments. By some lights, tax exemptions are what nonprofits get in exchange for delivering public goods and services that governments can’t or won’t provide.

But when nearly 33,000 human service nonprofits across the country have government contracts and grants, and government funding accounts for more than 65 percent of total revenue of human service nonprofits — totaling more than $100 billion nationally, as it now does according to a study done by the Urban Institute — isn’t the partnership between nonprofits and governments changing?

Is a paradigm shift afoot? Or are steps toward a new grand bargain merely a product of difficult economic times?

Either way, taking PILOTs this far into nonprofit territory opens flood gates that will drain the coffers of smaller, struggling community-based organizations – roughly 75 percent of all charities – that lack the capacity and resources of larger nonprofits.

What will happen to nonprofits like these that serve the unemployed, homeless, poor and hungry but that run on very tight margins themselves? Payments in exchange for their tax-exempt status will likely put some over the edge. In 2009, 82 percent of small human service nonprofits in Massachusetts reported deficits. Half froze or cut employee salaries while a third drew on scant reserves. Another 28 percent reduced programs and services, according to survey results collected by the Urban Institute’s Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy for its National Study of Nonprofit-Government Contracting.

As the head of an association of community-based health and human services put it in a recent discussion on PILOTs: “Which of our clients should we stop serving? Which of your taxpayers do you want us to fire?”

Which indeed?

Originally published in The Provider, Vol. 32, No. 7, Summer 2011.