Last week, a National Academies panel met to explore how institutions impact the integration of foreign-born individuals and their children. “The Integration of Immigrants into US Society” convening, hosted by the Academies’ Committee on Population, was part of a two-year project that will culminate in the release of a report summarizing knowledge about how immigrants are integrating into American society, laying out the policy implications of the panel’s findings, and highlighting crucial knowledge and data gaps.
Among the institutions vital to immigrant communities are nonprofits founded and tailored to address the needs and issues of the many racial and ethnic groups that make up our society. At the panel’s second meeting, I discussed immigrant organizations and integration, based on Urban Institute reports on community-based organizations and immigrant integration and immigrant legal-aid organizations and my own exploration of Filipino-American organizations.
Immigrant organizations are crucial to the lives of immigrants, their families, and communities. They act as community centers where newcomers can be among others who speak their language and where they can learn to navigate life in their adopted country. They are safe places where second- and third-generation immigrants can learn about their ethnic culture.
These centers also double as social service providers, especially in places that are not so welcoming, where immigrants don’t have access to health and other social services. Immigrant nonprofits also act as advocates and representatives and promote the civic and political engagement of newcomers.
They also partner with other organizations and build networks, broadening the net that supports immigrants and the community in general. They serve as channels through which funders, government agencies, and elected officials can reach immigrants.
Héctor R. Cordero-Guzmán, who studies immigrant organizations in New York, argues that these nonprofits “play a central role during all parts of the immigration process and in the social, cultural, political, and economic” integration of immigrants. Immigrant organizations help individuals and families find a community, achieve economic stability and self-sufficiency, learn and participate in a new social and political system, and become legal residents or citizens.
These indispensable organizations, however, tend to cluster around urban centers, away from suburbs and exurbs where immigrants have been settling down. It will take time before immigrant organizations are established and scale up; in the meantime, immigrants trek into cities or are left to their own devices.
Moreover, immigrant organizations tend to be underresourced and stretched to capacity due to the great demand for their services. Immigrant legal aid nonprofits, in particular, will have a challenging time serving undocumented immigrants eligible for legalization, should immigration reform pass.
Immigrant nonprofits are important to immigrants, but they can only do so much. Other nonprofits, public agencies, philanthropic groups, and community entities can partner with immigrant organizations in facilitating immigrant integration, and in the process, strengthen and enrich the entire community.
Hector Estrada, top center, who teaches social justice in a theater setting at the Refugee Youth Academy, addresses a group of immigrant students at the academy in the Brooklyn borough of New York. The Refugee Youth Academy is a six-week program run by the International Rescue Committee that tries to help refugee parents and children get familiar with what American school is all about. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)