Winter 2014-15

From Grassroots to Executive Action: Reflections on Immigration Reform


Written by: Deepak Bhargava

Date: January 01, 2015

President Barack Obama’s recent executive order on immigration reform is a hard-won victory for the hundreds of community organizations, thousands of activists and millions of people who have pressed for change through marches, phones calls, protests, civil disobedience and electoral engagement for more than 15 years. The president has heard the call – and made history. The victory is partial and the fight is far from over, but the movement has clearly reached a turning point.


The president’s decision is potentially transformational for undocumented immigrants living in and contributing to American communities. Nearly half of them will be recognized and invited to stay and apply for work permits for three years, renewable indefinitely, unless another administration dismantles the program. This relief comes largely in the form of deferred action, a form of executive authority that Obama previously exercised with regard to the Dreamers – immigrants who arrived here as children (so named for the 2012 Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act).

While this executive action is unquestionably a huge step forward, there’s still much to fight for, including those left out of the new deferred action program, such as some parents of Dreamers as well as farm workers and other low-wage workers without qualifying family ties. The struggle won’t end until everyone has freedom from fear of detention or deportation and a path to full citizenship, which will ultimately require legislation. Here’s what’s next for the movement, and how grantmakers can best support it.


The two moral challenges that created this phase of the immigrant rights movement remain relevant: 1) families still want to stay together without fear of deportation and 2) the people who toil in the fields, cook our food, make our beds and clean our offices are still exploited, receiving poverty wages and working under oppressive conditions, with no recourse because of their legal status.

The movement comprises a combination of nimble organizations and hundreds of thousands of people affected by immigration policy. The Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) is one of the largest coalitions of immigrant rights groups in America today, staffed and supported by the Center for Community Change (CCC). FIRM has 40 members in 30 states and its leaders bring potent muscle and crucial strategic drive. It is a part of a much larger and growing ecosystem of movement actors that includes Dreamers, unions, faith-based groups, low-wage worker centers, multiracial community organizations, civil rights organizations and more. Crucial support for the immigrant rights movement has been provided over the long haul by many visionary foundations, including the Atlantic Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Long-term national and regional funders of community organizing at the national and regional level also played a vital role in building and sustaining this infrastructure.

In the 1990s, the idea of legalizing millions of people who had no money to contribute to candidates and who could not vote was unthinkable to nearly everyone within the Beltway – an impossible dream. Immigration reform could not have claimed center stage in the American national debate without a movement forcing the issue into the moral conscience and body politic of our nation. But much has changed and many lessons have been learned since then.


Movements must be led by the people who are impacted. The people most affected by injustice must be more than stories or useful spokespeople – they must be leaders with real power. This means supporting community organizations, offering leadership training, actively listening to the populations you serve and building tables where they hold power. Among those who rose to say, “I am undocumented and I am unafraid,” it was the Dreamers who first opened the hearts and minds of middle America. I remember in 2004 when FIRM and CCC organized one of the first “mock graduations” of Dreamers dressed in caps and gowns on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. My sense of possibility expanded as I saw them hurl their caps in the air with joy because, even though they couldn’t yet go to college, they realized they could help make history.

Put a human face and moral claim at the center of the debate. One of the people who recruited me to this movement was Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) and a co-chair of FIRM. Every movement has its iconic moral moments. In 2012, Angelica sat across from President Obama in a White House meeting and confronted his claim that only criminals were deported. “No, Mr. President, that’s not what’s happening,” she said. She spoke boldly but her hands were trembling as she leaned toward him. “You’re deporting heads of households, mothers and fathers. Young people are sitting in detention centers when they should be sitting in the best universities in the country.” The President recently affirmed this hard truth on “Face the Nation” when he said, “We are deporting people that shouldn’t be deported.”

Challenge both friends and enemies. Watching Angelica speak that truth to President Obama, I knew she was channeling the immense courage of every immigrant who has ever stood up, emerging from the shadows to speak their own truths. No one should forget that every undocumented person who has lent his or her voice to the movement has also risked deportation by speaking up. The immigrant rights movement has serious enemies: well-funded hate groups, people whose minds are still poisoned with racism and xenophobia, lobbyists representing interests with something to gain by keeping people exploited and politicians who cynically scapegoat the powerless to mobilize the worst instincts among their base. This is why movements also need to engage their friends, and foundations can help by bringing these disparate groups together to help set the stage for meaningful dialogue.

Define the debate at critical moments. In 2013 and 2014, immigration reform emerged as a presidential priority, as a series of escalating civil disobediences, fasts and family bus tours pricked the national conscience. Teenagers Carmen Lima and Jennifer Martinez electrified the media by surprising Speaker John Boehner at his favorite diner, an encounter captured live on video. They told him about their real and constant fear of losing their parents to deportation. Before confronting Boehner, they and other young people attended a training for immigrant youth organized by CCC. Grantmakers must equip advocacy and grassroots groups to respond to these critical opportunities by providing resources for leadership development, relationship-building and multi-year general operating support, allowing grantees to nimbly respond to new challenges and opportunities.

Build national power locally. Though immigration law is a federal affair, the movement has long sought to make states and cities the proving grounds for pro-immigrant policies. Groups like the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights helped win real breakthroughs at the state level on naturalization assistance, driver’s licenses and in-state tuition, which moved the politics of federal decision-makers and enlisted powerful local allies in the national fight. In tougher terrain, groups like Promise Arizona, the Florida Immigrant Coalition and the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice managed to defang the worst of anti-immigrant legislation while defining the national debate and making real gains at the local level. Smaller and local foundations that support these groups have been crucial, and their work leads directly to national gains.

Tap into civic engagement. After the marches of 2006, the movement’s core community organizations decided to invest in building electoral muscle to leverage the changing demographics of the country. The extraordinary turnout of Latinos and immigrants in the 2010 midterm elections was the direct result of massive voter mobilization efforts. It helped spur the U.S. Senate to vote on the DREAM Act along with dramatic shifts in local policy. The translation of demographic change into political power can be seen across the country, including in tough places like Long Island, thanks to the dedication of local donors like the Hagedorn Foundation and Make the Road New York. Mobilizing civic engagement is an important area that demands foundation support.

Continuously strengthen alliances. Over the years, the immigrant rights movement has recruited powerful allies that have used their clout to advance the cause, including unions, women’s organizations, civil rights groups, LGBT and environmental groups and more. Multiracial community organizations such as the Gamaliel Foundation and Alliance for a Just Society made early and deep commitments to immigration reform when the issue was far from fashionable, bringing with them local bases of non-immigrant leadership. Foundations should fund such multi-issue, alliance-building advocacy and community organizing as part of their strategy to help the immigrant rights movement.


There is a famous story about A. Phillip Randolph’s meeting with Franklin Roosevelt. The civil rights leader had met with the president to demand action on racial discrimination in defense jobs during World War II. Roosevelt reportedly responded, “You know, Mr. Randolph, I agree with everything you’ve said. I agree that I have the legal authority and the bully pulpit to do what you are asking of me. But I need you to go out there and make me do it.”

We recently heard that story from a surprising source: President Obama, during a candid, 90-minute meeting in March 2010 about the prospects for immigration reform, just before hundreds of thousands of people descended on the National Mall. By sharing that anecdote, the president was acknowledging that elected officials need social movements to succeed, and that the role of movements is to awaken consciences, rouse public indignation and make leaders uncomfortable enough to force action.

We took that as an invitation to “make him do it.” So the movement did. And then he did. The country will be immeasurably better because of those two bold and courageous decisions.

Deepak Bhargava is executive director of the Center for Community Change.