Grantmakers Play an Important Role in Comprehensive Immigration Reform Efforts

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Laughter and jokes belie the serious planning that’s taking place on the eighth floor of a building in midtown Manhattan. Five staffers of United We Dream are tackling everything from finding new space to long-term goals.

This group, started in 2008 by college students without legal status, has expanded to be the biggest youth-led immigrant organization in the country with 52 affiliates in 23 states. And they're hot on the heels of last year’s success.

"We were able to not only organize at the grassroots level and mobilize young people all across the country," said Cristina Jimenez, United We Dream's managing director, talking about last year. "But we were also able to be sophisticated about our thinking and engaging with many immigration law experts."

The organization lobbied the White House and played a key role in getting deferred action put in place. Over 420,000 children brought illegally to the United States have so far gotten temporary work permits. Their work didn't go unnoticed. One of the biggest national immigration funders, the Open Society Foundations has given them $800,000 in grants to date.

"In a proposal what I look for is a really strong vision and a very a compelling strategy with very clear activities that will get us to the policy change we want to see, that moves our grant making forward," said Archana Sahgal, who manages the immigration portfolio at the Open Society Foundation.

She was looking at a new grant proposal from United We Dream that would be used to work on comprehensive immigration reform. The Open Society gave nearly $70 million to immigration advocates in the past eight years. They’re just one organization in a big group of national funders, such as the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, who are putting millions of dollars into work being done of behalf of immigrants.

And there’s still not enough money for all. Sahgal is currently looking at a dozen proposals from organizations who’ve applied for grants to work on immigration reform. What sometimes tips the scale is an organization’s particular advantage, such as in the case of United We Dream.

"A part of our analysis is that DREAMers are net natives," Sahgal said. "They grew up with the Internet and so they’re really sophisticated with the ability to communicate with young people and their members and other young undocumented youth over Facebook, over Twitter."

Sahgal says immigration funders are working together in an attempt to seize what they see as a big opportunity to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Geri Mannion, who directs the U.S. democracy program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, thinks the work of some of their grantees could make a difference. They’ve brought in groups that were not present in previous immigration reform efforts.

"There’s coalitions now that weren’t available in the past, of evangelicals and other faith leaders," she said.

One of those grantees, the National Immigration Forum, is behind a 40-day “I Was a Stranger” prayer challenge.

The Church of the Lamb of the Nazarene on the Lower East Side is taking part in it. On a recent Sunday pastor Gabriel Salguero told his parishioners they don’t need to look hard to see how they should act when it comes to immigration reform.

"The way we treat the stranger, Jesus said, is the way you treat me," he said during the service.

Rev. Salguero is the President of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. He and over 150 other evangelical leaders from around the country have been inviting their congregations to read passages from the Bible related to immigrants for forty days. Their goal, he said, is to create a small army of evangelical Christians "to advocate with their congressmen, to write them letters and visit them to call for immigration reform."

But Mannion of Carnegie says she remains skeptical about the possibility of passing comprehensive immigration reform.

"We’ve been close before many times," she said. "A lot of things can happen between the start and the finish line."