Nonprofit Organizations and the Local Politics of Immigrant Rights

By Els de Graauw (Baruch College, CUNY)

In the United States, immigrant-serving nonprofit organizations have long combined service provision with client and public policy advocacy to promote immigrant integration at the local level. Scholars of urban politics and policy, however, have not readily viewed them as influential actors in the ecology of local decision-making. After all, these organizations must contend with significant regulatory and resource constraints on their advocacy: they frequently rely on government funding, have few organizational resources that readily translate into political influence, are limited in the amount and type of advocacy they can do as a result of their tax-exempt not-for-profit status, and operate in a national context of fractured public support for and opposition to immigrant rights. Yet, immigrant-serving nonprofits in many cities across the country have driven major changes in local integration policies and practices, strengthening immigrants’ language, labor, education, voting, housing, due process, and identification rights. Why and how did they succeed?

My book Making Immigrant Rights Real: Nonprofits and the Politics of Integration in San Francisco (Cornell University Press, 2016) unpacks the puzzle of how immigrant-serving nonprofits successfully navigated the many constraints on their advocacy to influence the local governance of immigrant integration. It focuses on nonprofit advocacy for immigrant rights in San Francisco, a traditional immigrant-receiving city with over 200 active immigrant-serving nonprofits. However, it also considers similar nonprofit advocacy in Houston, New Haven, New York City, Oakland, San Jose, and Washington, D.C. Using both qualitative and quantitative data, the book draws on case studies in three realms of immigrant rights policies—language access, labor rights, and municipal ID cards—to present a tripartite model of advocacy strategies that nonprofits have used to propose, enact, and implement immigrant-friendly city policies.

The first strategy has been one of administrative advocacy, where immigrant-serving nonprofits advocate with non-elected city officials to influence policy interpretation and implementation. Many nonprofit advocates know that federal rules on tax-exempt organizations limit their lobbying with legislative officials but not administrative officials, who are political appointees or civil servants. Because many nonprofits work under contract with city departments and agencies, they have easy and many opportunities to influence the work of city administrators. They also have an unrivalled expertise on immigrant communities that is useful to these administrators, who are under constant pressure to make city services more effective and less costly and whose professional norms and missions motivate them to serve all city residents, even when they lack a good understanding of the rapidly changing needs of immigrant residents. My research found that immigrant-serving nonprofits were the only organizations advocating for immigrant rights after the enactment of a new law. This was the case for legislation specifically targeting immigrants (language access) and legislation benefitting a range of disadvantaged populations (labor rights and municipal ID cards).


Second, immigrant-serving nonprofits have undertaken cross-sectoral and cross-organizational collaborations. Operating on tight budgets and catering mostly to noncitizens, immigrant-serving nonprofits tend to lack the money or voter base to exert their own pressure, making it necessary for them to build larger coalitions in support of immigrant rights. Immigrant-serving nonprofits need to collaborate with elected and appointed city officials because they control funding to nonprofits and have the power to enact, implement, and enforce the needed programs and policies. They also need to work with other immigrant-serving nonprofits to pool resources and multiply advocacy voices. And immigrant-serving nonprofits need to work with other advocacy organizations like labor unions, which have more resources and fewer explicit restrictions on their political activities. In turn, government officials and union activists have welcomed collaborations with immigrant-serving nonprofits, which can help them navigate language, culture, and trust barriers with immigrant communities. These cross-sectoral and cross-organizational collaborations certainly have challenges, but they are another important strategy that immigrant-serving nonprofits have used to overcome resource limitations and legal restrictions on their advocacy to promote immigrant rights.

Finally, immigrant-serving nonprofits have used strategic issue framing to counter the growth of anti-immigrant sentiment, where the federal government’s enforcement agenda also has put increasing pressure on cities to toe the line. Through trial and error, immigrant-serving nonprofits learned not to frame immigrant integration policies solely by relying on discursive frames centered on immigrant empowerment and immigrant rights. While such frames helped to unify and mobilize a diverse group of immigrant-serving nonprofits around a comprehensive immigrant rights agenda, they did not gain much traction with San Francisco government officials, voters, or the mainstream media. Instead, nonprofit advocates had to emphasize that other city residents also had an interest in immigrant rights legislation, using different advocacy frames to establish this linked fate. They framed language access legislation as a civil rights issue and a much-needed local attempt to enforce existing state and federal language access provisions. Yet they used the lens of economic justice to frame labor rights legislation, and they framed municipal ID cards legislation as a public safety and civic integration issue. By strategically downplaying that these policies primarily benefited immigrants, nonprofit advocates successfully navigated a highly politicized environment in which their objectives remained a difficult political sell even in San Francisco.


My book sheds new light on the important role of nonprofit organizations in urban politics, especially in terms of the enduring debate about who has power and who governs to what end. As a result of their advocacy using these three strategies, immigrant-serving nonprofits in San Francisco have played a central role in enacting new rights for immigrants, including language access provisions for limited English proficient immigrants, stronger labor protections for low-wage immigrant workers, and municipal ID cards for undocumented immigrants. More importantly, they have also consistently aided the implementation of these new rights in ways that institutionalized them into the daily practices of San Francisco government. The gap between rights on the books and rights in practice is often wide, and new rights will remain hollow absent effective implementation and enforcement. Nonprofit advocates in San Francisco were instrumental in bridging this gap, making immigrant rights real by constantly pushing local government to be accountable to the city’s diverse immigrant communities.

As the Trump administration is pushing increasingly aggressive anti-immigrant policies—targeting not only undocumented immigrants, but also refugees, recipients of Temporary Protected Status, and even long-standing categories of legal immigrants—cities (and also states) have become even more important sites for fights to protect immigrants’ rights and promote their societal integration. However, city officials who want to help embattled immigrants and refugees do not always have the resources or know-how to address the challenges and leverage the opportunities of immigration-generated diversity. Immigrant-serving nonprofits will therefore continue to be important organizations to bridge the gap between immigrant communities and city government. As the federal government’s anti-immigrant stance is further emboldening these organizations to advocate for immigrant rights, we will have more opportunities to deepen our understanding and appreciation of the critical roles these organizations play in city politics and policy.

Els de Graauw is Associate Professor of Political Science at Baruch College, the City University of New York. Her research focuses on immigrant rights and immigrant integration, urban politics and policy, and civil society organizations. Her book Making Immigrant Rights Real: Nonprofits and the Politics of Integration in San Francisco is co-winner of the 2017 Best Book Award of the Migration and Citizenship Section of the American Political Science Association.

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