The Urgency of Now: Funding support for immigrant and refugee services, advocacy and movement-building is more urgent now than ever

June 16, 2021

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As the Biden-Harris Administration approaches the 150-day mark, Vice President Harris’ visit to Guatemala has elevated the urgency to advance the immigration agenda. Immigrant rights advocates have fought hard for this moment when restoring humanity and dignity in our immigration system that honors family unity, supports a growing economy and provides safe haven for those fleeing persecution, war and calamities appears within reach. Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative (HILSC) has been meeting with local NGO partners, city and county representatives and the border sector to coordinate strategies and efforts to support asylum-seekers coming from the border. There is a deep sense of urgency to be prepared.

President Biden has taken 94 executive actions on immigration during the first 100 days of his administration, more than half of these actions were to reverse the anti-immigrant measures of the previous administration. The rapid and bold actions of President Biden on immigration are welcomed relief for immigrant rights advocates. The reversal of the anti-immigrant and anti-refugee policies of the Trump Administration has opened potential avenues for many to obtain legal immigration status.

Some of the Biden Administration’s actions have immediate implications to the immigrant community and the immigrant-serving organizations. For example, the end of the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP, also known as Remain in Mexico) has enabled more than 12,000 individuals to enter the U.S. since February 19, 2021, about 10% of them have resettled in Harris County. Following the MPP processing, the Administration has begun to allow vulnerable migrants encamped along the Mexico borders to enter the U.S. under narrow exemptions of the Title 42 public health expulsion policy. Many of them have also resettled in Greater Houston. Whether they are released under the MPP program or the Title 42 exemption or released by CBP for other reasons, these migrants are in removal proceeding and they need legal assistance to sort out the posture of their immigration matter, and to continue their asylum claims and other immigration relief.  Changes in enforcement and removal priorities also allow immigrants in removal proceeding to reopen cases to seek termination, continuance, new hearing on the merits, or to petition for bond or parole, etc. Non-profit immigration legal services providers need immediate and sustained infusion of funding to ramp up staffing capacity to help immigrants seek immigration relief during this small window of opportunity under the Biden Administration.

In addition, the Biden-Harris Administration also expanded humanitarian protection by designating nationals from Venezuela and Burma for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and redesignating Syrians and Haitians for TPS protection and expanded the scope of those covered. An estimated 323,000 Venezuelans and 1,600 Burmese in the U.S. are newly eligible for TPS. The redesignation of Haitians and Syrians for TPS is likely to double the current number of 64,000 TPS beneficiaries. Nationwide, nearly 420,000 foreign nationals from 10 countries are TPS beneficiaries prior to the recent designation of Venezuela and Burma, almost 13% of them live in Texas [i] among whom are more than 50,000 Salvadoran and Honduran TPS recipients. The fate of Salvadoran, Honduran, Nepalese, Nicaraguan, and Sudanese TPS-holders is up for redetermination when the current designation expires on October 4, 2021. At the same time, President Biden also increased refugee admission from 15,000 to 62,500 for fiscal year 2021 and he vowed to double this number next year. Texas is among the top refugee receiving states having resettled 10% of the refugees over the past decade. Houston area immigration legal services need to stand ready to provide legal assistance to many who would be eligible for protection under Biden Administration’s expanded humanitarian relief programs.

The expansion of humanitarian protection together with the process of allowing MPP migrants and those exempt from Title 42 public health expulsion have opened the safety valve for many seeking safe-haven in the United States, these are but band-aid to the broken and inequitable immigration system. Several bills pending before Congress offer the prospects of comprehensive immigration reform.  However, four months have elapsed since the United States Citizenship Act of 2021 was introduced in Congress and more than three months have gone by since the House passed the Dream and Promise Act of 2021 and the Farm Workforce Modernization Act of 2021, none of these bills has advanced. Without continued advocacy, the legislative process will stall, and these bills will die of inaction and foreclose the hope for any real immigration reform for years to come.

There are 44.9 million foreign-born individuals in the U.S., they account for 13.7% of the total U.S. population. Nearly half (45%) of immigrants are naturalized citizens. Immigrants make up an outsized share of essential workers working on the frontlines risking their lives to respond to the pandemic as physicians (28.7%), nursing assistants (22%), registered nurses (15.7%), respiratory therapists (13.6%), grocery and supermarket workers (16.6%), food delivery workers (18.2%), freight laborers (15.8%), meat cutters (34.7%), farmworkers (42.1%), maids (46.7%) and janitors (25.7%) despite persistent anti-immigrant attacks. Over the past two decades, both Democratic and Republican Administrations designated billions of dollars in federal budgets to attack immigrants. In 2018 alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had a combined budget of $23.8 billion, an increase of 39% since 2012 even though immigration has flattened over that period.

During the period of intense assaults on immigrant rights during the Trump Administration, a survey of 254 top local funders across the United States in 2018 showed that philanthropy gave $304 million in grants that benefited immigrants and refugees across the country, and another $116 million to support pro-immigrant, pro-refugee movement groups. [ii] The philanthropic giving to immigrant and refugee community represented a many-fold increase since 2016, but at 1% (for service organizations) and 0.4% (for movement organizing) of all foundation dollars given out, it continues to be disproportionately tiny relative to the size of the immigrant population and the threats it has been under.

In Texas, one in six Texans is an immigrant, a quarter of them live in Greater Houston. Nearly half (44%) of children in Greater Houston live in immigrant household and 15% of the children have at least one parent who is undocumented. The immigration policy changes under the Biden Administration have enormous impacts on the children and families in this region. The Greater Houston philanthropy needs to adequately invest in the immigrant community to help this community thrive and succeed.

Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative has organized a three-part funder briefing since May 2021 to apprise the philanthropic community of the impacts of the changing immigration landscape on Greater Houston. Through the funder briefing, we also share strategies in building equitable disaster management for immigrants and highlight examples of public-private partnership as mechanism to provide sustaining support for holistic immigration legal services.

The election of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris to be President and Vice President of the United States is only the first step toward the aspiration of building an equitable immigration system and inclusive society. By the stroke of a pen on an executive order, hundreds of thousands of individuals who lack immigration status may win the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain deportation reprieve. There is an urgency for the immigrant-serving non-profit community to be prepared to help our immigrant neighbors realize the benefits from any immigration reform. Philanthropy can help us get ready. Here are a few things that philanthropy can do to support a vibrant and inclusive future [iii]:

  • Designate proportional funding in the immigrant and refugee portfolio and give flexible, multiyear funding to support the immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations to enable them to pivot and allocate resources to swiftly adapt to emerging needs.
  • Fund a long-term vision while also support organizing and service to address short-term and immediate needs that include legal services, case management, mental health support and stabilization services to ensure immigrants’ long-term success in integration.
  • Use your network and social capital to advocate for inclusive immigration policies, make public statements against raids, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia, and include immigrants and refugee community members for your board, staff leadership and advisory councils.

The Covid 19 pandemic has made clear that the status quo pushing to maintain the system of exclusion has deepened inequality and disproportionately harmed communities of color. Philanthropy can respond to the sirens of the time by resolutely supporting immigrant communities that are organizing to combat hate and racism to build a better future for all.

– Zenobia Lai, Executive Director


[1] See Pulling Back the Curtain: Analysis of New Government Data on Temporary Protected Status (TPS AWG, March 2021)

[1] _, Won’t You be My Neighbor? Local Foundations, Immigrants & Refugee Populations (National Center for Responsive Philanthropy),

[1] See e.g. Call to Action for Philanthropy to Address Urgent Regional Humanitarian needs for Asylum Seekers (Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, Feb. 2021)


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