Recent executive orders on immigration have sparked an outpouring of donations from the general public, with national groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) seeing the bulk of the financial windfall. For example, the ACLU recently raised $24 million in a single weekend.
But with the spotlight on large nonprofits, some smaller, minority-led groups find that the focus on high-profile courtroom showdowns with the current administration has come at the expense of support for grassroots work. “For folks who are new to the issues of immigration or immigrant and refugee rights, [grassroots groups] aren’t the first thing that pops up on Google when you’re trying to figure out what to donate your time or money to,” said Tara Raghuveer, deputy director of the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), which is a coalition of 37 regional immigrant and refugee-rights groups across 31 states.
“If you live in a family that has never had to ask the question of who is going to take care of my kids if I’m deported, you won’t naturally think of the fact that you need a community-based organization or institution like a church or school to provide the information that isn’t necessarily a legal consultation, but supports people facing continuous anxiety and fear during these times,” Raghuveer said. NPNA members provide rapid responses to urgent community needs from “Know Your Rights” workshops to assistance in formulating plans on what to do in case a family member is deported. While the organization has received increased support following the election, the demand for services has also risen.
The U.S. is home to over 1.5 million charities, most of which are small organizations that deliver a wide range of services while financially challenged by their overhead. According to GuideStar, which reports on U.S. charities, only 10 percent of registered nonprofits have annual revenues of $500,000 or more. The headline-making donations following the presidential election are the exception rather than the rule.
For donors like Clarissa Marzán, an account executive in New York City, giving to advocacy organizations like the ACLU is a way to maximize the impact of her contributions. “I wanted to donate to organizations that have a diverse mission so that I can still pitch in for other important causes such as immigration rights and LGBTQ rights,” she said. “I liked that organizations like the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center had that broad reach.”
To approximate that reach, minority-led organizations are banding together to share resources. “None of our partners are new — we’ve talked and worked together for years. But it certainly does feel different in this political climate,” said Nadia Tonova, director of the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC), whose mission is to develop local nonprofits across the country. In contrast to the ACLU, which raised nearly seven times what it raised during 2015 in the weekend following the executive order, NNAAC donations have only risen by 15 percent since the election.
At the state and national level, NNAAC partners with a variety of minority-led groups like South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) and Muslim Advocates, which is a legal and education advocacy group. “We’re talking much more frequently as things are happening. We’re sharing news, talking points, and policy analysis to help accelerate our rapid response, so that we can have space for everyone who wants to be engaged,” Tonova said. Suman Raghunathan, executive director of SAALT, commends large advocacy organizations for supporting their efforts as she works to build a cross-cultural coalition with organizations like United We Dream and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).
Some donors, like Austin Chanu, a music teacher in Los Angeles, support the efforts of these grassroots groups to expand their community outreach in the wake of the election. “I have donated to larger groups or local political candidates [in the past] but have slowly come to the realization that my money is better being directed toward local grassroots organizations that are working for racial, economic, and social justice,” Chanu said. “I found out about BAJI just last month and after reading about its history and roots in Oakland and San Francisco, I knew I had to donate. They are doing important work organizing and educating African-American and black immigrant communities.”
But despite the support of donors like Chanu, some small minority-led immigrant rights groups express frustration at not being included in the latest national organizing campaigns. On March 11, the ACLU launched PeoplePower.org, a platform to organize mass resistance to renewed threats to civil rights and civil liberties. The program builds on the widespread donations and support the group has received since President Trump’s inauguration and controversial executive orders, and aims to take on the cause of grassroots organizing nationwide.
In response to these critiques, Faiz Shakir, the ACLU’s national political director, said, the organization is “coming to the fight and bringing even more resources and personnel to lift up all of the fights that some of these groups are waging on the ground. We want to provide a platform that any grassroots group could use to reach larger numbers of people.”
Still, one minority group leader, speaking on condition of anonymity, cast a skeptical eye on such initiatives. Although he acknowledges a good working relationship with the ACLU and National Immigration Law Center (NILC) over the years, he is wary of attempts to expand their grassroots work. “It appears to us that we need to order our priorities not only because of what Donald Trump is doing, but also due to what groups like the ACLU are doing,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a competitive space because we have scarce resources, and we need to find the best way to use them.”
To Mijente, a Latino advocacy group in Chicago, the dominance of more “mainstream” organizations is nothing new. “Self-representation has been a central pillar of all successful social change movements, and it’s been one that’s historically been ignored in the immigrant-rights movement,” said Tania Unzueta, Mijente’s policy and legal director. “The people we need to be looking to and supporting right now are veteran organizers of red states who have lessons to share from the front lines of Trump’s America.”
For minority-led groups, close engagement with and awareness of community needs provides an advantage in developing programming. Some organizations, like BAJI, strive for a bottom-up approach through member-led outreach. According to Carl Lipscombe, deputy director, “we’re out there in communities talking to them about their lives, so we have a better sense of the priorities of immigrant families and what they face day-to-day.”
James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American Institute, concedes that groups with resources and expertise to mount complex courtroom cases might be better placed to spearhead legal challenges, but he champions protecting a seat at the table for minority-led groups. “We challenge people to reflect on the cultural definition of America, who we are as a country, and what we want to be,” he said. “I think that’s something we can do, and that we are uniquely positioned to do, because of our experience, who we are, and our story.”
Akinyi Ochieng is a writer and researcher studying at the London School of Economics.