Evaluation of Ford’s Immigrant Rights strategy

The Challenge

Since the late 1980s, many policymakers and members of the American public have viewed enforcement as the principal tool of the United States immigration system, either to deter migrants from coming to the country without papers or to punish immigrants who (intentionally or unintentionally) fail to comply with immigration law. As a result, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are arrested and placed in deportation proceedings, or otherwise removed from the U.S., with a disproportionate impact on Black immigrants.

Before we launched our strategy in 2015, we listened closely to our grantees whose constituents were directly affected by detentions and deportations that persisted despite policymakers’ avowed support for immigrants. Recognizing that immigrants’ needs for family unity and an end to harsh enforcement were unlikely to be met through comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, the Immigrant Rights portfolio focused on supporting advocates working on enforcement reform and their goals. In making this commitment, Ford was the first major U.S. philanthropy to establish ending harsh enforcement as a principal focus of its immigrant rights strategy.

What We Did

Over a matter of five years, we invested nearly $118 million in organizations working to achieve changes in advocacy and policy, build the field, and shift the narrative around immigrants. This included approximately $43 million invested through our BUILD initiative and approximately $23 million distributed through our 2020 Social Justice Bond. We provided general support to organizations representing immigrants directly impacted by harsh enforcement, as well as to longstanding grantees who were using litigation, mobilization, advocacy, and communications as tactics that reinforced one another. Other funding helped the movement confront strategic gaps and challenges, draw on expert advice, bring organizations together for collaborative learning, and strengthen philanthropic partnerships.

In the fall of 2020, we partnered with consultants Kathleen Sullivan and David Shorr to evaluate this strategy, deepen our learning, and make informed decisions on where to focus moving forward. The evaluation concluded in spring 2021.

What We Learned

1. Enhanced support to enforcement reform advocates helps level the playing field.

There has been an increase in the number of women of color who occupy leadership roles among organizations in the reproductive, health, rights, and justice field. Grantees shared that the foundation’s long-term grants supported women of color to participate in professional development programs to enhance their knowledge about how to lead and run an organization, build networks, and develop a vision for themselves as leaders. That said, although significant progress was made toward the foundation’s desired outcome, women of color leaders still require continued financial and other kinds of support to ensure adequate representation at the national level.

2. Well-supported enforcement reform advocates can build political and public will.

Though cards were stacked against the immigrant rights movement politically, we helped advocates working on enforcement reform enhance their capacities to maximize their influence. Their skill and ingenuity led to more favorable policy outcomes than many would have predicted. Advocates were able to galvanize congressional champions, educate many other legislators, and enlist unprecedented support by the incoming administration. They also raised public consciousness of the harms of the country’s detention and deportation regime.

3. Integrated, well-resourced strategies are essential to achieving favorable policy outcomes.

We supported all types of federal advocacy and all of them turned out to be crucial. Strong mobilization and media together with legislative advocacy held off harmful policies during the 2018 and 2019 federal budget debates. Media and mobilization secured a rollback of family separations. Litigation, mobilization, regulatory/policy and media work combined to help delay the worst impacts of DACA termination, Temporary Protected Status terminations, and public charge amendments. Interim wins in litigation staved off harms to individual immigrants and built the public’s understanding of enforcement’s cruelties.

4. With enhanced capacity and committed policymaker champions, progress is possible even in unfavorable environments.

The efforts of the last five years suggest that it may be possible to curb federal appropriations for immigration enforcement. Our grantees and their partners have succeeded in educating the public and policymakers that the country’s billions spent on immigration enforcement harm immigrants’ lives. At the same time, it’s clear that the immigrant rights movement needs an improved political environment to achieve comprehensive legislative reform without paying the cost of further criminalization and militarization.

5. State-level policy change is essential to enforcement reform at large.

When our grantees secure laws curbing local enforcement, it requires more federal resources to be spent on each deportation, thereby lowering the number of annual deportations. As individual immigrants are spared the anxiety of being detained and deported, many have organized and mobilized for candidates and policies that benefit their communities. As state and local advocacy educates the general public about the human toll of immigration enforcement and how it undercuts community safety, it garners new supporters and activists for change—and builds political will among state and federal policymakers.

6. State-level work fosters inclusive democracy, which supports an improved immigration policy climate.

Deep philanthropic investment in states has helped groups of immigrant activists grow into strong advocates for civic engagement and voter mobilization. Several immigrant rights organizations also train members of immigrant communities to run for office. As a result, immigrants are hastening political transformation across the country.

7. Joint efforts by criminal justice and immigrant justice advocates can spur enforcement reforms and magnify their impact.

Grantees active at state and local levels have worked with criminal justice advocates in ways that have helped curb the prison-industrial complex. Organizations, large and small, are centering both racial justice and criminal justice in their training and organizing, and building specific methods for Black immigrants and others who have directly experienced enforcement to have a more influential voice. The intersection of criminal justice and immigration is the focus of much local-level movement energy in an era of polarization in Washington.