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Nonprofits need to address immigration issues

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Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

Rick Cohen

How can the U.S. continue to be so mystifyingly confused, contradictory, and sometimes downright incoherent about immigrants and immigration?

Nonprofits face challenges in serving, representing, and advocating for immigrant populations in the midst of a confusing public discourse.

The obstacles include punitive state and local laws, hostile public opinion, and chaotic shifts and reversals in national approaches to immigration — and what creative, inventive, intrepid nonprofits around the nation are doing to counter these conditions.

Punitive? Hostile? Chaotic?

You can attach these adjectives daily to the challenges nonprofits and immigrants have to address every day.

Consider the latest news headlines concerning our nation’s fits and starts with immigrants. Consider:

  • At the various “town hall” meetings on health care reform where opponents get to vilify each other and imagine that a public option is a stalking horse for something akin to Stalinism, one of the big rumors is that health care reform will provide coverage to undocumented immigrants.
  • As long as they can pitch, field, or hit like they might make the big leagues, there’s no such thing as an illegal immigrant to major league baseball. But if they are looking for jobs in day labor centers or other venues, immigrants frequently face welcomes quite the opposite of their countrymen in organized baseball.
  • During President Barack Obama’s visit to Mexico to meet with Felipe Calderon, he announced that due to the “pretty big stack of bills” on his agenda, immigration reform would have to be delayed until 2010.

These headlines offer two obvious lessons.

First, no matter how much evidence nonprofits can point to about communities that have welcomed and integrated immigrants, there is still plenty of venom toward immigrants in lots of venues.

When scoring points against undocumented immigrants works for leaders of both major political parties as in the health care reform debate, we should all be aware of how much work there is to be done.

Second, as a sector, nonprofits need to start talking about immigration and immigrants.

The silence of most nonprofits around immigration issues, even when they emerge in ostensibly non-immigrant policy discussions such as health care reform, is not healthy for the sector.

Look at the websites of most of the national nonprofit “infrastructure” organizations for evidence that they have taken a stand on anything relating to the needs of immigrant populations — documented and undocumented — and the roles of nonprofits in responding.

We don’t need conference agenda items about what “immigrant organizations” are doing; we need a sector discussion of how the nonprofit sector writ large -operating charities and public and private foundations — is standing up for human rights for the immigrants in our nation.

Unless our nation and the nonprofit sector come to grips with responding to the legitimate needs and aspirations of tens of millions of immigrants in our nation, we will as a nonprofit sector be failing in our sector-wide mission of social advancement and grassroots democracy.


Rick Cohen is national correspondent for the Nonprofit Quarterly and a regulator contributor to the Philanthropy Journal. A longer version of this article was published in The Cohen Report, a publication of the Nonprofit Quarterly, which is devoting its Summer 2009 issue to immigration.

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