Immigrant communities have long been at the helm of social change. While there are organizations across the country working to address the needs of immigrants, refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers, many originated with and are led by well-meaning nonimmigrants who may not fully grasp the complex and diverse experiences of the people they serve.
So facing xenophobia, systemic racism, exploitation, and exclusion, immigrants increasingly are organizing for their own interests and on behalf of their own communities. They understand that it takes strength and tenacity to start a new life in a new place and are using these same qualities to create support networks that put their communities first—in areas from health care to education, workers’ rights to civil rights.
Here are some of their stories.
A consistent concern within immigrant communities has been the harassment, detainment, and deportation of undocumented people by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement—disrupting families and fostering mistrust. And since the inauguration of Donald Trump, there has been a marked increase in ICE actions. In response, several immigrant groups are calling out corporations that enable ICE to target and track people, conduct raids, and make arrests.
In recent years, the #NoTechForICE campaign, run by the Latinx/Chicanx organization, Mijente, has sought to limit ICE’s ability to use technology to help its enforcement. By publicly exposing tech companies that work with ICE, Mijente is making it easier for people to make a conscious decision about the companies with which they choose to do business.
In October 2018, the organization released a report outlining the federal contracts between ICE and Palantir Technologies, a software company that provides ICE with data-mining software it then uses to screen undocumented immigrants and conduct workplace raids.
After launching a campaign against Palantir, hundreds of students from campuses including Harvard, Yale, and MIT signed a document pledging not to work with Palantir until it stops working with ICE. In addition, organizations such as the Berkeley Privacy Law Scholars Conference, Lesbians Who Tech & Allies, and the Grace Hopper Celebration dropped Palantir as a sponsor.
“The campaign has changed how the company’s brand will be perceived for years to come,” Mijente’s William Fitzgerald says.
Similar to Mijente’s efforts, Movimiento Cosecha is heading a movement called #NoBusinessWithICE, which includes a guide featuring step-by-step instructions on how to get cities, counties, and businesses to end their cooperation and contracts with ICE.
Immigrants are a cornerstone of the U.S. labor market, comprising 17% or nearly 1 in every 5 workers. And across the country, several immigrant-led groups are working to address some of their workplace needs.
Such was the case in 2018, when the Seattle City Council passed a measure extending a range of new worker protections to house cleaners, nannies, gardeners, and other domestic workers—a group of around 30,000 people in the city.
Seattle became the first municipality in the country to pass the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, which guarantees such rights as a minimum wage and lunch breaks, already standard within the labor sector. Among the groups pushing the initiative was the Seattle chapter of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a broad coalition that has been working to implement such protections across the country.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance was formed in 2007 by 13 organizations, including Mujeres Unidas y Activas, as a way to advocate for and give voice to those working in domestic employment. In 13 years, it has expanded to include more than 60 affiliate groups, whose leaders, like the workers they represent, are mostly immigrants and people of color. They’ve established bills of rights for domestic workers in nine states and two municipalities, Seattle and Philadelphia.
“Domestic workers have been excluded from federal, state, and municipal workplace protections, so it’s important to have a broader approach,” says Maria Reyes Huerta, National Organizer with the domestic workers alliance. Reyes says domestic workers’ bills have most recently been introduced in Washington state, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., as well as in the U.S. House and Senate.
In 2015, the alliance also launched a portable benefit platform called Alia, which allows workers to receive contributions from their clients that can then be used to purchase benefits including paid time off and disability and accident, critical illness, and life insurance.
Now with the spread of COVID-19 making practically all forms of domestic work unsafe, the alliance has launched a care fund to provide financial relief to workers while they practice social distance and shelter in place. They are also hosting weekly webinars with pandemic-related updates for domestic workers.
It goes without saying that LGBTQIA+ immigrants face significant psychological hardship while in detention and after being released. Often they are attacked, assigned to the wrong facility based on gender or denied proper medication while in ICE custody. It was that recognition that led to the creation of the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, which works with immigrant detainees and their families as well as those recently released from detention in the New York Tri-State area.
The group’s work takes many forms—from funding bail bonds and offering legal services to medical referrals, educational opportunities, and housing and employment assistance. Prior to the spread of COVID-19, QDEP volunteers conducted twice-monthly detention center visits.
In partnership with New York Affirmative Psychotherapy, QDEP created a mental health and healing program in the summer of 2019 to offer clients weekly individual therapy sessions to address detention-related trauma in LGBTQIA+ detainees. It also provides a monthly support group, led by two certified therapists from National Latinx Therapists Action Network.
“Through this program, we created a space for our members to address the trauma they experienced in their home countries, during their journeys to the US, and in detention centers,” says Ian Zdanowicz, co-director of QDEP.
Zdanowicz says that because of their immigration status, many members are excluded from the COVID-19 relief being offered by the federal government and many states. So the organization has established a mutual aid program through which members can obtain essential goods and services, including groceries, medications, rent assistance, and more.
Also, a QDEP team is leading the New York/New Jersey #FreeThemAllcampaign, a collaboration of organizations across the country demanding the release of all immigrants from ICE detention.
Immigrant and undocumented youth also face specific hardships. Fear of deportation—their own as well as that of family members—is often on children’s minds, making it difficult to focus on their classwork. Many are bullied over their immigration status as well as over language and other cultural differences. All that, combined with household and financial stress, can lead to underperformance on school assignments and exams.
Since 2018, ImmSchools has partnered with K-12 schools across New York and Texas, training faculty and staff on how to better support undocumented students and their families. These workshops may include information on immigration law and how to create inclusive classroom environments, as well as providing immigrant-focused curricula.
ImmSchools also educates high school students on their options for attending and paying for college. It provides direct support to undocumented families through workshops that help them understand how to speak to children about immigration matters, understanding their rights in schools, and how to navigate encounters with ICE.
“Since our founding, we have worked with over 1,000 families … providing Know Your Rights workshops, and community support groups, while also providing educator training and school resources to create change,” says Lorena Tule-Romain, co-founder and chief strategy officer of ImmSchools.
Now with schools closed, Tule-Romain says the organization is continuing to offer virtual sessions and remote training to school educators and staff. More specifically, they are supporting 45 families struggling under the financial strain of the pandemic, using donated funds to provide meals and groceries, as well as rent and utility stipends for families in their network.
Immigrants often struggle to obtain regular, quality health care either because of their undocumented status or because of being employed in jobs that lack benefits. Organizations such as CARECEN San Francisco have stepped up to support them in meeting some of those needs through two separate initiatives: Health Promotions Program and Family Wellness Program.
Vanessa Bohm, director of both programs, says that through its family wellness program, CARECEN assists more than 150 families annually in obtaining such vital services as affordable health care, as well as assistance signing up for various health coverage programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and the Affordable Care Act.
Also, it connects individuals with resources such as food pantries, and even offers limited individual, couple, and family therapy services. “As a part of case management services, our case managers work with community members to create a tailored plan of goals community members would like to achieve,” Bohm says.
This might entail getting members signed up for medical benefits they qualify for, referring them to institutions that will sign them up, or even accompanying them to appointments.
Bohm says, “case managers assist community members to better understand the various complex institutions and systems they come in contact with (health, education, and legal systems to name a few) and navigate them to overcome linguistic, cultural, racial discrimination, and other barriers.”
The health promotions program, meanwhile, assists more than 300 individuals annually. Initially, it offered basic health services and ran as a low-cost community dental clinic. But Bohm says over the past decade, they’ve shifted its focus to train community health workers (promotoras de salud) to provide critical health education to the Spanish-speaking community, with a heavy emphasis on matters that predominantly affect Latinx communities. Among these are diabetes, obesity prevention, and oral health.
“Our promotoras conduct a wide variety of health workshops and classes in these focus areas that are free at local schools, clinics, and community spaces,” Bohm says. Both the organization and its promotoras have been advocating for “policies that help support and improve the health of underserved and [under-resourced] communities, including immigrant and communities of color, youth, LGBTQ, special needs, and elderly populations.”
Priscilla Blossom wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Priscilla is a freelance journalist specializing in Latinx and LGBTQ+ issues, arts & culture, health & wellness, and parenting.