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What Chait Got Wrong

Cooperation is real, but it’s nothing new for immigrant groups

Photo by Visual Stories || Micheile on Unsplash

There’s been a lot of noise about New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait article this week, “Joe Biden’s Big Squeeze.” He muses on the direction of the Democratic Party and various forces shaping the progressive policy agenda. Chait writes: “The story of Biden’s domestic agenda is that it was crippled by a small but crucial faction of Democrats who came to be persuaded by the C-suite view of the world.”

I don’t know if Chait is right or wrong here, but there is another point he makes that I am more interested in. Chait writes:

“Progressive activist groups, once atomized into a gaggle of single-issue lobbies, have increasingly closed ranks, endorsing one another’s ideas as a single, all-or-nothing program.”

This assessment — though not the conclusion Chait draws from it — resonates with what I’ve found for the approach of philanthropic foundations on immigrant rights. I wrote about this in my book, Immigrants and Electoral Politics, and the large story of political empowerment of immigrant communities over the last 30 years.

Prior to the 2000s, many immigrant rights groups worked independently from others, reflecting the distinct interests of the communities they represented and also the uncoordinated funding of donors. Atomized is a good way to describe the varied ecosystem of advocacy for immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s.

With new threats to Muslim Americans after September 11th, increasing rates of immigration, and rising anti-immigrant hostility, a new and more common direction in immigrant rights emerged. Rather than the divergent approach of the past, cooperation defined the new strategy, similar to what Prof. Sarah Reckhow referred to this as “convergent grant making” in the field of education.

National funders launched or revitalized several groups to accomplish this goal of cooperation. One group, the Funders Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), had been around in an ad hoc way since the 1980s. Though not explicitly focused on immigrants, FCCP took on low levels of civic participation, over time broadening from early efforts on voter registration by adding an interest in campaign finance and later electoral administration and technology. In 2021, FCCP writes:

“Today, we work to build an effective network of grantmakers who are passionate about realizing our collective vision of a vibrant and inclusive democracy for all. Through member-driven and field-informed programming, FCCP provides funders with a community in which to build connections, exchange ideas, showcase innovations, and collaborate to make smart funding decisions.”

A more targeted cooperative effort is Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants (GCIR), originally founded in 1990, now an association of thousands of large and small funders. GCIR explains:

“Today, a growing number of our members have an immigrant- and/or refugee-specific funding area, although the majority integrate immigrant and refugee issues into their existing funding portfolios — from poverty alleviation to education to workforce development.” GCIR has been applying this approach since before Bill Clinton was elected President.

A final group to consider is the Four Freedoms Fund (FFF). FFF was founded in 2003 and “works by pooling large grants from individual foundations and making smaller grants to state and local immigrant advocacy organizations.” It “simplifies the process of making a large number of grants to grassroots groups, while encouraging funder collaboration for strategic grantmaking.” FFF grants to nonprofits that were focused on immigrant and refugee issues increased fourfold in 10 ten years, from less than $2 million in 2000 to close to $10 million by the end of the decade. Again, collaboration is clearly the strategy, but FFF — the newcomer in this group — is itself nearing a 20 year anniversary.

Chait is right that there has been a convergence to reduce the atomization of the past, but he presents this as a new thing, a feature of the very recent history of advocacy for progressive issues. He’s wrong about that in the case of immigrant rights.

For forty years, those interested in the plight of immigrants and defending those rights, have banded together. These four collaborative funding arrangements exemplify this, but the work of other grassroots groups also reflects this trend. Immigrant coalitions exist in many major cities, linking together the interests of immigrants in common cause, especially during electoral season. Whether this has worked out well for Democrats isn’t easy to assess, but to suggest this trend appeared in the last couple of years is not accurate. Cooperation has been a mantra of immigrant activists, nonprofits, and funders for decades.

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Heath Brown

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits