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The Role of Foundations in Immigrant Rights

Resource type: Speech

Gara LaMarche |

The rights of immigrants must be protected and foundations can use their unique strengths to play a leading role such as funding public education and civic engagement, said Gara LaMarche, The Atlantic Philanthropies’ President and CEO, in this speech at the European Foundation Centre Meeting in Dublin in September 2007.

Those of you who write articles or give speeches from time to time, as I do, may have experienced something that’s happened to me in the last week or two, as I’ve tried to gather my thoughts for the remarks you have asked me to give this evening: all of a sudden you notice that the topic on your mind is omnipresent in the media. Now, I’m not sure if this would work if I was thinking about making a major address about, say, the plight of Bolivian tuna fishermen. But it certainly has held true for migration, my topic tonight.

The New York Times of a week ago featured an article about two brothers – the grandsons of Italian immigrants, who helped to raise them – who are on opposite sides of the roiling U.S. immigration debate. One is the Republican Mayor of a town in New Jersey improbably named Bogota – and even more improbably, pronounced Bo-GO-da! – who is leading an anti-immigrant campaign, even demanding that a local McDonald’s remove a billboard written in Spanish and that the town’s police be deputized as immigration agents. The other is a former Legal Aid lawyer developing a clinic for migrant workers at Seton Hall University. Bogota was founded, by the way, by Dutch settlers, who displaced Lenape Indians.

Over on the arts page in the same day’s paper, there is a review of a television documentary, which I happen to have seen in progress during my time on the Sundance Documentary Committee, about immigrant women from Mexico and El Salvador who sue their employer over wretched working conditions, log hours and poor compensation at a Los Angeles garment factory.

Visiting my family in Rhode Island last weekend, I noticed a front page Providence Journal article about the anxieties local farmers feel about having enough workers to harvest apples and other autumn crops in light of the federal government’s recent wave of raids on businesses to round up and deport undocumented workers.

And since coming to Atlantic a few months ago I have become a student of all things Irish, so high on my reading list is the Irish Voice newspaper in New York, which does a terrific job of covering immigration matters in the U.S. and Ireland. That’s how I first learned the remarkable story of Rotimi Abedbari, who I’m privileged to share this platform with tonight, and of the controversy that Minister Conor Lenihan must grapple with – whether a Sikh member of the Garda ought to be permitted to wear his turban while on duty. I’ll return to all these topics later.

The point I am making with these examples is perhaps an obvious one, but I hope no less important for being so. It is that migration – the movement of people across borders, what makes them leave, what they experience when they do – is a virtually universal experience. In the United States, there is hardly anyone who did not come, or whose relatively recent ancestors did not come, from somewhere else, including the millions of African-Americans whose forbears came in chains. My own grandparents emigrated to New England from Quebec at the turn of the last century, my physician great-grandfather following the waves of French Canadian mill workers to western Massachusetts. My father spoke nothing but French until he entered school at six. My first known ancestor on my father’s side was Jean Bricault dit Lamarche, who came to Quebec from Brittany in 1655 as part of Louis XIV’s Carignan Regiment to suppress the Iroquois – a bit of cosmic karma that I have been doing my best to work off in thirty years as a human rights advocate.

The U.S. is a well-known “melting pot,” but several of the other geographies in which Atlantic works – the two in Europe, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and the one in Africa, South Africa, are also grappling with the challenges of newcomers, and doing so without much recent experience to draw on. Only in the last decade has Ireland become a net importer of people, with many service jobs occupied by workers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. That this is not without its social stresses was driven home to me by my entrapment in the front seat of a taxi with an Irish driver during my last trip to Dublin, who recounted his recent trip to Poland to find out why “they” keep coming “here.” It’s estimated that as much as ten percent of the Irish population – which is growing, fuelled in equal measure by births and immigration – is now foreign-born.

So let me begin my remarks tonight with a walk through the work of Atlantic and its grantees on migration issues in the four countries in which we work on them, and conclude by drawing out a few thoughts on an agenda for foundations that draws on the assets that we are best positioned to deploy.

I’ll start with the U.S and say more about it, since I know it best, partly because I live there and partly because my own work as a human rights advocate has been engaged in these issues domestically for thirty years. On this particular day, I feel compelled to start with a few words on the aftermath of the terrible events of six years ago which hit hardest the city which I love and in which I have lived for 35 years.

Today’s raging immigration debate in the U.S. for the most part centers on so-called “illegal” immigrants, but there is one huge exception. Since September 11, 2001, South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims have faced public hostility and discrimination – despite the fact that each of these groups exemplify, in their social stability, hard work, and family and community cohesion, what we like to think are American values. Thousands of men from those communities – permanent resident aliens, not people living in the shadows, who of course would never voluntarily report to the government – were rounded up for questioning in the days after the September 11 attacks; whole ethnic groups were subjected to “special registration,” resulting in the deportation of many for minor offenses or technical violations; racial profiling (against which a national consensus was emerging before September 11) became routine. When interviewer Ted Koppel held a town meeting on the eve of the fifth anniversary of September 11 last year, he began it with two chilling poll findings: while “only” 19% of those questioned believe Arab-Americans and Muslims should be rounded up and put in camps, nearly half believe they should be required to carry special identification cards.

Now, as in the 1920s – a time when the legal protection of civil liberties, and the advocacy organizations charged with this work, were much less developed – at the root of these abuses and attitudes is a perception that the immigrants involved are “the other,” not part of “us.” We Americans like to recall the partly welcoming words that adorn the base of the Statue of Liberty, but our history is far from rosy.

In testimony about his raids on suspected immigrant radicals, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer said that “out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type.” An immigrant group which today has taken its place in the leadership of virtually every American institution, the Irish, in the 19th century and well into the 20th century, were perceived as criminal and degenerate – indeed, the term “paddy wagon” comes from such a racist stereotype. In his provocative book “How the Irish Became White,” Noel Ignatiev writes that the Irish:

commonly found themselves thrown together with free Negroes. Irish and Afro-Americans fought each other and the police, socialized and occasionally intermarried, and developed a common culture of the lowly. They also both suffered the scorn of those better situated. Along with Jim Crow and Jim Dandy, the drunken, belligerent and foolish Pat and Bridget were stock characters on the early stage. In antebellum America it was speculated that if racial amalgamation was ever to take place it would begin between these two groups.

Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that racist fears of the foreign are as American as apple pie. Before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin wrote of the influx of German immigrants: “Those who come hither are generally the most stupid of their own nation.” Earlier he had warned that “Pennsylvania will in a few years become a German colony; instead of learning our language, we must learn theirs, or live in a foreign country.” Then leap forward to the 1940s to recall the internment in camps of persons of Japanese ancestry living in the Western part of the United States, whether citizens or not, during the Second World War.

One does not have to look so far back in history, or need the climate of fear engendered by September 11, to find evidence of such racist attitudes as fuel for the assault on immigrants. But the events of September 11 have been exploited by government officials constantly looking to expand unchecked power, and by xenophobes all too willing to prey on legitimate and understandable yearnings for security. What happened six years ago today changed the world in many ways, but one for certain is America’s relationship to those who come from elsewhere.

Some weeks now after the U.S. Senate failed to muster the necessary votes to deal with challenge of at least 12 million undocumented workers, a clearer picture is emerging of what happened and what needs to happen next. Atlantic has supported The Campaign for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and a number of other groups working for a fairer immigration policy since 2004. We’ve made a total of $13.2 million in grants so far. It’s a major priority of the foundation, and we’ve worked closely with the leading groups in the movement, whose work in the past few years to keep open the door to the American dream for newcomers has been nothing short of heroic. But of course their work, and therefore ours, is not over yet.

The most critical one of the many moving parts of immigration reform, in our view, is a path to legalization for the estimated twelve to fifteen million non-citizens who are in the U.S. without proper documents – either because they overstayed their visas or entered the country illicitly, compelled to leave their homelands by economic necessity in order to support their families. Though you wouldn’t know it from the tenor of much of the debate, the vast majority of these immigrants are hardworking people who contribute much more to the society, financially and otherwise, than they ever take from it. If these newcomers follow the path, as there is every reason to believe they will, of immigrants to the U.S. since the early 19th century, they will learn English and come to identify as Americans, while contributing to the ethnic and cultural diversity that is a leading aspect of the country’s remarkable strength and resilience.

Denying a path to earned citizenship for these neighbors will not make them disappear. Indeed, given the inexorable pace of globalization, in the absence of policies which strengthen opportunity in their home countries, the number of undocumented workers in the U.S. will continue to grow. Significant sectors of the economy would virtually collapse without their labor. So the choice is not between reform and having no undocumented workers. It is between reform and a kind of de facto apartheid – a stateless population three times the size of Ireland, whose work we depend on but to whom we refuse to extend the most basic of human rights. No free society can indefinitely tolerate that.

I can’t say it better than Mark Lange, who wrote speeches for the first President Bush. He recently wrote in the New York Times, if we wanted to “create a huge Latino underclass in this country,” we would:

Adopt a let’s-pretend labor policy in our fields, yards, factories and restaurants, and for child care, construction and cleaning, with a wage fakery worthy of the Soviet Union… We would ensure that the education system failed them, lamenting a dropout rate more than twice that of blacks and four times that of whites… We would let the states launch loads of legislative half-fixes. We would have the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Homeland Security Department start an “even tougher” and more futile paper chase. We would see desperate workers fake new Social Security numbers or go underground for the next boss seeking this shabby labor discount.

In the face of these realities, we must go forward, and gird up for the long haul. There is no guarantee that any bill worth having will emerge in the remainder of this Congress, as an election year approaches, or even in the term of a new President, assuming he or she is committed, as President Bush in his weakened state is, to some essential elements of fair reform. At the same time, the organizations we support will have to remain strong to fend off the wave of anti-immigrant bills at the state and local level.

The campaign must learn from and build upon the lessons of the last few years. First, it has to raise the price of engaging in openly racist or racially coded appeals. It became disgustingly clear toward the end of the Senate debate, as hate calls flooded into legislative offices, that for too many Americans, it is the color and accent of many of today’s immigrants that is the driving force behind restriction. Every critic of immigration reform is not a racist, but the racists among them must be identified and isolated. This calls for a serious campaign of media monitoring and, when necessary, shaming.

Second, there needs to be a significant public education initiative about these newcomers, since we know from successful programs in some parts of the country that have recently experienced a substantial influx of immigrants that the more Americans know and understand, the more likely they are to welcome newcomers and support reform. Much resistance to reform is motivated by ignorance and anxiety, and the time to address it most effectively is not in the middle of a heated Senate debate. The groundwork must be laid for years before. Many U.S. talk radio callers rail about immigrants who “refuse” to learn English, but how many are aware of the vast chasm between those who are desperate to learn the language and the paucity of ESL classes in which they can enroll, recently documented in a study by the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute? It’s time to get such information into the public debate, and spur action.

Third, the further civic and political empowerment of new immigrants is imperative. Immigrants and their allies showed last year, in peaceful rallies and marches all across the country, that they intend to speak on their own behalf, not just be spoken for. Many new immigrants who came here through legal channels have since become citizens. They and many of those who came before them are deeply troubled by what they saw on display in the Senate, and they need to be assisted through non-partisan voter registration drives to take their proper place in a democracy – as voters, to whom the people’s representatives are accountable.

These lessons, I believe, have resonance in many other countries represented in this room, as migration is a global phenomenon with the same drivers and resulting stresses almost everywhere.

On to South Africa, whose democracy is beginning to experience considerable stresses over migration. It is estimated that at least 6,000 Zimbabweans come across the BeitBridge border post each day in search of work, and last year 25,000 applied for political asylum. On this matter the South African constitution, as in so many ways, provides relatively progressive policy and legislation by world standards, but there are manifest abuses on the ground by officials in refugee reception centres, at border posts and by police and the military. Illegal arrests and deportations are common. Refugee and migrant women are often refused medical care and access to antiretroviral drug treatment following rape, and to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Asylum seekers are not permitted to obtain driving licenses, despite their requirement by many employers. The migrant community is the target of much xenophobia and some fatal physical attacks on Somalian and Zimbabwean refugees have taken place in several cities. Meanwhile the Department of Home Affairs, the chief agency dealing with refugees and migrants, is so racked by corruption that necessary sackings have depleted its ranks at a critical time.

As a consequence, South Africa Atlantic’s programme, which has made $5.5 million in grants in this area so far, seeks to protect the rights of refugees and migrants through monitoring of refugee reception centers, border posts and the Lindela Refugee Repatriation Centre to track abuses. We also support high impact strategic litigation and research, lobbying and advocacy for policy change. We back a project to transform the internal management of refugee reception centers to comply with human rights norms, and have a special focus on the needs of child refugees and Zimbabwean refugees – a problem that the government makes harder to deal with by its refusal to acknowledge and deal with the dimensions of the crisis in the country on its northern border with an inflation rate of 8000 percent and an unemployment rate of 80 percent. We also promote, as we do in all countries in which we work, essential networking and collaboration among refugee-serving and advocacy organizations.

In the North of Ireland, there has been a steady increase in the number of migrant workers, a number of whom have settled in rural towns and villages, working predominantly in food processing, manufacturing and construction. In addition to the challenges for service providers and NGOs, recent police data shows an alarming increase in the number of recorded racist attacks. Atlantic in Northern Ireland is focused on supporting improvements in service delivery, effective enforcement of policies and a strengthened and self-supporting infrastructure for migrants to advocate on their own behalf. Atlantic has made two grants totaling $2.9 million in this area in the North. The main organization we support in the North, the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEP), based in Dungannon, combines innovative support services such as advice, language, employment and housing support with efforts to influence policy.

Finally, here in the Republic, the latest census showed 63,276 Poles living permanently in Ireland, up from 2,124 four years earlier. In some small districts in Dublin, Limerick and Cork, more than half of the residents are non-Irish. It is no criticism to say that Irish society and the relevant systems and policies were not equipped to deal with this level and pace of inward migration, so it’s very encouraging that the new government recently named the first-ever minister for integration, Conor Lenihan. His department is exploring ways to provide extensive language classes for adult immigrants and to increase training for unskilled local Irish workers.

Minister Lenihan has his work cut out for him. One school in Dublin has been accused of segregating black immigrants in classes by themselves, and complaints are on the rise to the European Union about the deportation from Ireland of spouses from non-EU countries.

In the Republic, Atlantic’s strategy, which has resulted in 10 grants totaling $10 million so far, is focused on developing the capacity of organizations working on immigration issues, both in Ireland and at the EU level; ensuring fair, transparent immigration procedures; public education and strategic communications; integration policy and access to mainstream services, and enhancing the migrant voice, the theme of this meeting. And in the government’s new immigration bill, there is consideration of requiring immigrants to carry I.D. cards, not something required of Irish residents.

Now let me say a few words about the common approaches we might take to dealing with common challenges. The first is public education and awareness. One thing foundations can be very good at is supporting the creation of knowledge. We need to know more about migration in order to deal with it intelligently. In the U.S., for example, there’s a disturbing lack of true understanding about immigrants and where they come from. Partly due to ignorance and xenophobia, the term “Latino” is used to cover a variety of Central and Latin American nations, from Mexico to Peru, that are diverse among and within themselves. How many Americans know that there are 27 Mexican states represented by hometown associations in the United States, or that Jalisco accounts for more than three times as many Mexicans abroad as any other? How many Irish are familiar with the political and economic realities of Nigeria or Poland? What would it cost to provide English language classes to all who want to take them?

It is worth noting that the larger context of the immigration debate – bilateral and global trade and economic policies and arrangements – is almost always missing from the discussion. The familiar narrative of immigration – escape to a better life of political and economic freedom – does not fit a great many immigrants, who come for temporary work, retain close ties to the home country (remittances from citizens abroad are a principal source of revenue for Mexico and many countries from which migrants come) and often go back and forth – or would, if they did not face efforts to fence them out. And of course most undocumented persons did not sneak across a border, but came legally at first, often by plane, and then overstayed their visas.

There are many ways to bridge this gap, but one I want to emphasize, having more experience with it, is the use of the popular media. A few recent documentaries have helped migrant voices to be more widely heard. Crossing Arizona, directed by Joseph Mathew, focuses on the hazards faced by those entering the U.S. at the Arizona border – Ground Zero in the immigration battle; many of them die of thirst and starvation in the Sonora Desert. We hear a lot about the Minutemen and other self-appointed vigilantes, but Crossing Arizona also features the inspiring work of Anglo U.S. citizens, many of them inspired by religious fellowship and commitment, and able to see those making the dangerous journey as fellow human beings caught up in a cycle of poverty and deprivation – what Dickens called “fellow passengers to the grave” — for whom a border is much less important than the need to survive and provide for their families.

Such a story is also at the heart of De NADIE (No One), directed by Tin Dirdamal, a Mexican human rights activist who never took up a camera before making this film. He found Maria, a Honduran woman who made the wrenching decision to leave her four children and ailing husband in order to support them by working two jobs in Mexico. No one hearing her story would be able to see the issue of “illegal immigration” in the same way again. It strikes me that Maria and virtually all those involuntary migrants like her, driven by poverty to leave their homes and those they most love, exemplify every one of what we consider our deepest American values – love of family, loyalty, hard work, and even a kind of patriotism that recognizes that sometimes when you love your country you have to leave it.

I learned much from De NADIE about the harrowing journey that Central and South Americans make through Mexico on the way to the U.S. – a story of maimings and deaths that follow on unsuccessful efforts to jump aboard the only north-bound freight train, and of murder, rape and other violence at the hands of railroad security and corrupt Mexican police. Anyone who makes it into the United States after such an odyssey deserves citizenship, if not a medal. Who is to say I am more deserving of it, simply by virtue of the mere accident of having been born in the U.S.?

The second thing that foundations can do is promote the civic engagement of newcomers, something I’ve already discussed a bit in talking about immigration reform challenges in the United States. In every jurisdiction I have mentioned, political and social dynamics are changing because immigrants themselves, including undocumented ones, are taking charge of their own fortunes and reviving neighborhoods and boosting the economy with their labor and entrepreneurship.

This lets us imagine societies in which we contest not how vigorous we can be in trying to exclude those not born here from participation in the social contract, but how we can broaden the elements of that contract and who gets to be a party to it. To take one example of how we might think differently, the notion of permitting or encouraging non-citizens to vote seems pie-in-the sky in the U.S., yet we see a stirring example of it here in Ireland in Mayor Adedbari’s election by the voters of Portlaoise, citizens and newcomers alike. As Fordham Law Professor Jennifer Gordon points out, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at least 22 states and territories enfranchised immigrants in both state and federal elections. Today, only Takoma Park, Maryland, and a few other stray jurisdictions, do so in local elections.

But why not let immigrants vote? They pay taxes and serve in the military. In recent months we have become more and more aware of the many ways in which immigrants, particularly undocumented ones, are active members of the community. As Gordon writes:

Having worked with such immigrants for fourteen years, I can unequivocally state they do not live …a feral and reclusive existence; instead, they participate vigorously in the economy (albeit often underground), churches, schools and communities in which they live. Unless forced to dig in their wallets for their immigration papers, they are often indistinguishable from any other member of the community, and their interest and stake in the community’s political decisions is as strong as that of any citizen.

Obligations run two ways, of course. Society owes immigrants something, but they owe it something, too. One concern about immigration — certainly in Western Europe, which is grappling, often much less well, with some of these matters than the United States — is whether some immigrants will change the values of the society in a less tolerant way. If open society concerns argue for more open immigration, what happens if the consequence is, as may be the case in the Netherlands, a reduction in tolerance for free expression, or for women’s rights or gay rights? These are the kinds of questions posed by the turban issue with which Minister Lenihan is faced, and on which people of good will may differ. What does it mean to be American, or Irish – or indeed, to be Muslim or Catholic in this multicultural, interdependent world? As we’ve seen in Germany and the U.K. in recent months, the costs of exclusion, of immigrants feeling no stake in their new society, can come very high.

UC Berkeley law professor Bill Ong Hing, a longtime immigrant rights advocate, has a more thoughtful approach. In To Be An American, Hing writes:

The common core of values encompasses the essence of good citizenship. It includes respect for the nation’s laws, for its democratic and economic system, and for equal opportunity. But this common nucleus is part of a modern vision of being an American. The requirement of inclusion and respect for diversity is reciprocal and applies not only to those in control of the power structure, but also to those at the margin and how they should regard one another. Thus, as part of this core, I would urge others to consider adopting a particular set of values – which some would regard as American, but which I regard as human values – so that we might move toward a peaceful multiracial society. Basically, these values are to repudiate racism, sexism, hetero-sexism, and class distinctions in our daily activities; to be open, caring, and fair; and to be accepting of diversity and respectful of others.

A third way in which foundations can advance a fair and humane migration agenda, particularly appropriate to stress in this setting, is for us to recognize that the transnational nature of the migration challenge requires transnational cooperation and action. Atlantic’s recent grant to the European Council of Refugees and Exiles proceeds from an awareness that effective measures to address the challenges of migration must take increasingly take place at a European rather than a national level. The opportunity to create a Common European Asylum System is a significant one, but without the vigilance and influence of civil society throughout Europe, the EU could end up reflecting the worst policies of individual member states, resulting in even less protection for refugees. Governments have acknowledged the need to address integration by the agreement of a set of Common Basic Principles, the establishment of National Contact Points and the EU Integration Fund.

On the foundation level, we need more gatherings like the European/American exchange programme sponsored by Ford, King Baudouin, the German Marshall Fund, Atlantic and the Open Society Insitute, where grantees in Europe and the United States working on immigration met for joint discussions and saw examples of one another’s work.

Finally, foundations need to listen to the voices of migrants themselves, directly, and make sure that in our work these communities are actors and advisers, not just acted upon. Admirable in this respect among many examples – but we need many more – are the Barrow Cadbury Trust’s consultation process on challenges facing migrant community organizations and the processes of inclusion and consultation carried out by Robert Bosch Foundation and King Baudouin Foundation. When I was at the Open Society Institute in the mid – 1990s, and we embarked on an ambitious $50 million effort to blunt the effect of the exclusion of legal immigrants from social welfare benefits, we set up an advisory panel of immigrant organizations in New York and Los Angeles which played a key role in guiding our work.

Among the many impressive grants I read about in the background materials for this conference, one which stayed with me is The Rockefeller Foundation’s support for artist Alejandro Santiago, who has an ambitious plan to repopulate his southern Mexico hometown, devastated by migration to the U.S., with 2,501 life-size clay figures. It’s a striking but very sad image. It is my hope that the work we will all do together in the coming years on migration, one of the most profound and far-reaching global challenges of our age will see not statues of the missing, but a different kind of monument: living, breathing, economically secure communities for people of all colors, tongues and cultures, not only in Mr. Santiago’s wounded hometown, but all across Europe, the U.S. and all countries whose promise of freedom and prosperity draw newcomers who will find their deepest hopes redeemed.