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By Teaming to Help Immigrants Become Citizens, Grant Makers Can Reject Today’s Vitriol

June 28, 2017
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Six years ago, five grant makers came together to form the New Americans Campaign because they believe immigrants can and do make profound contributions to our communities and our economy. We knew that helping green-card holders — legal residents — is a hallmark of the United States and continues to strengthen our nation.

Since we began our collaboration, there has been a sea change in Americans’ view of citizenship. While our commitment to increasing the number of citizens has never wavered, increased anti-immigrant vitriol and recent actions that directly influence the well-being of immigrants make it more important than ever for other grant makers to join our work. We hope our success in working together will offer lessons for other donors seeking new ways to support immigrants in America.

More than a dozen national and local foundations have joined our campaign over the last six years, as have leading national immigration organizations. Additionally, more than 100 local nonprofits are collaborating with city governments, faith-based institutions, and businesses in 18 cities to help aspiring Americans become citizens.

We have focused on making investments that spark innovation and inspire partnerships at the local level, but we also support those who seek to drive changes in national policy. We know we are making a difference because of this remarkable milestone: Since our founding, 250,000 lawful permanent residents have completed their applications for naturalization.

Even as the political landscape has changed, we have accomplished this success through relationships cultivated by the organizations we fund. They are committed to working together to help legal residents recognize the power and relative ease of naturalizing, and to helping more immigrants integrate into the fabric of our society.

But these same organizations face complex challenges that we must help them address. Never in recent memory has public anxiety and fear among immigrants been more pronounced. Even lawful permanent residents, who once felt secure with their immigration status, are worrying about what might happen to them. The only thing that is certain is that nobody knows what will come next.

We believe citizenship is the best defense against the growing tide of anti-immigrant feeling. It is the only protection against deportation. Citizens have the right to file immigration petitions for family members and can travel freely without fear that they will not be able to return to their homes in the United States. It brings proven economic benefits to individuals and communities and gives new Americans a voice in our democracy. We have long highlighted these benefits to encourage lawful permanent residents to seek citizenship. We’re still proclaiming the same message — only louder.

Investing in citizenship is taking the long view — something most grant makers recognize as sound strategy. Consider the numbers: Nearly 9 million immigrants in the United States hold green cards and are eligible to become citizens, but more than 60 percent have never received information about the citizenship process, and only 10 percent of those eligible to apply for naturalization do so each year. The New Americans Campaign has been helping to close the gap.

Beyond our focus on the long run, these are the five principles essential to our successful collaborative grant-making efforts:

Focus on learning and sharing proven strategies. By adopting efficient models, the organizations we support have more than doubled the number of naturalization applications they are able to complete annually. In addition to funding local efforts, we have created a broad learning network that shares what works to encourage more people to pursue naturalization, so even organizations that are not part of the campaign can improve their work and serve more aspiring citizens.

Collaborate at the local level. We establish partnerships with schools, universities, public libraries, social-service groups, government agencies, consulates, sports teams, faith-based institutions, and businesses. These partnerships allow us to meet lawful permanent residents who are eligible for citizenship and help them get the resources they need.

Recognize and cultivate diversity. Our local coalitions bring together organizations working in the diverse communities of each region and serve naturalization applicants from more than 40 countries on six continents.

Encourage innovation. We foster a culture of experimentation and learning through ventures such as Citizenshipworks, a multilingual online tool that includes a screening and application portal, a mobile-phone app, civics-instruction cards. and referrals to virtual assistance or local events where citizenship paperwork can be handled.

Use data to improve transparency and build support. We ensure that partners have the legal training and expert support they need to succeed. Our work is data-driven and powered by research that analyzes and illuminates the quantitative and qualitative impacts of our partners’ activities every quarter.

By focusing on those approaches, we have learned that what matters most is for grant makers to look at both community-based services and a national strategy. We chose a group of national immigration leaders to carry out our work and designated a well-respected organization, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, to lead them. We trusted the national leaders to bring in the right local partners.

We also learned that there is no single solution; rather, organizations must have the space to experiment, share, and learn what works so they can respond to the needs of different communities. With a learning network in place, we have seen tremendous innovation, which in turn allows service providers to meet increased need.

With the New Americans Campaign, we have created a powerful, informed, and agile network that can be activated to meet the needs of immigrants. Now, more than ever, commitment, expertise, and partnership are essential if philanthropy is to succeed in standing up to injustice and keeping our democracy strong.

Cathy Cha is vice president of programs at the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund. Angela Cheng is a program officer at the JPB Foundation. Leslie Dorosin is co-executive director of the Grove Foundation. Geri Mannion oversees grants to promote democracy at Carnegie Corporation of New York. Their organizations are among the founding sponsors of the New Americans Campaign.