Many in philanthropy are willing to stand up to the Trump administration’s actions targeting immigrants and refugees. Recently, more than two hundred grantmakers signed a joint letter opposing those actions, and many foundations have ramped up their rapid response and long-term giving for everything from legal services and community organizing to policy advocacy and litigation.
But the crisis facing immigrant communities across the country demands much more from philanthropy — in particular, that we step out of our funding and programmatic silos and consider how immigration is integrally connected to so many other issues we care about as funders. One such issue is criminal justice reform.
It is no secret that the United States maintains the largest immigrant detention system in the world. At last count, we were holding more than four hundred thousand immigrants in jails and prisons — including numerous for-profit facilities. This is the equivalent of putting the entire population of Oakland, California, behind bars. In the overwhelming majority of cases, immigrants in detention are asylum seekers, lawful permanent residents, and others who come here seeking the promise of freedom and a better life for themselves and their families. Instead, they have been tragically caught up in our nation’s broken immigration system.
Under the Trump administration’s rapidly expanding detention and deportation machine, immigrants are under attack as never before. Arrests of undocumented immigrants have increased by nearly 40 percent since Trump took office, while fewer than 9 percent of those arrested by ICE since January had convictions for violent crimes. In fact, research consistently shows lower levels of crime among immigrants than among native-born Americans. Nevertheless, the Trump administration is demonizing immigrant communities, stepping up its rhetoric and media manipulation to scapegoat immigrants and label them as being inherently criminal.
Undocumented immigrants who come into contact with law enforcement are punished twice — once by the criminal justice system and the second time by the immigration system — all without the protection of the minimal rights and due process available to others caught up in the justice system. Indeed, according to the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, for undocumented immigrants, contact with law enforcement “brings with it disproportionately harsh immigration consequences” ranging “from incarceration in immigration detention and banishment from the country to denial of future immigration benefits to individuals and their family members.”
The arbitrary and harsh treatment of so many immigrants by law enforcement is representative of the larger systemic failures of the U.S. criminal justice system. The criminalization of immigrants and people of color in our country is the product of “tough on crime” laws adopted in the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s. Among the most harmful of these laws was the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which opened the door to expedited removal, harsh penalties, and mandatory detention for immigrants swept up by law enforcement. This and other laws criminalizing immigrants followed the blueprint of broader criminal justice measures passed in the 1980s and ’90s, all resulting in the mass incarceration of people of color. Today, our country’s criminal justice system continues to place a big target squarely on the backs of immigrant communities and communities of color.
The good news is that immigrant rights leaders and criminal justice advocates from around the country are increasingly working to fight the over-criminalization of our communities. Recognizing that the system fails immigrants and other vulnerable communities by equal measure, grassroots groups are joining together to organize and build powerful intersectional coalitions aimed at ending mass criminalization, deportation, and incarceration. For example, it was a coalition of immigration and criminal justice reform advocates that created the momentum for enactment of California’s TRUST Act in 2014. This groundbreaking law limits local law enforcement collaboration with ICE across the state. Today, coalitions of criminal justice and immigrants’ rights advocacy groups are fighting to end the use of money bail in states across the country and to realize other common sense reforms that will benefit immigrants and other communities of color alike.
Addressing the enormous failures of our immigration and criminal justice systems means standing up for American principles of due process and equal justice for all. This should be something that all of philanthropy can support. We applaud the many foundations across the country that are making investments in criminal justice or immigrant rights — or both. The intersection of these two issues — and their life-and-death consequences for so many people — demands that we catch up with the courageous advocates who are leading the way and break out of the silos that so often constrain our grantmaking.
How can foundations simultaneously work on both criminal justice and immigration (or “crim-immigration”)? We can seed and support collaborative efforts undertaken by advocates in the two fields. We can convene grantees working across these issues to develop shared agendas and to explore the intersections of their work. We can strategize with other funders about how best to align our “crim-imm” investments. We can explore public-private partnerships with state and local governments to protect the rights of immigrants and people of color who are caught up in the immigration enforcement and criminal justice systems. We can fight back against the narrative that paints immigrants as criminals and instead lift up who they really are — our neighbors, family members, and friends who add tremendous value to our country and our communities.
There are myriad possibilities for funder action, and it all begins with building our knowledge and understanding of the connections between these two issues. Let’s work together to protect and advance our common values of inclusion, freedom, opportunity, and justice — for all.