Here is how I first learned about the nonprofit industrial complex, in a story proving that embarrassing moments can sometimes lead to satisfying memories.
In April 2018, I was a development fellow assisting in grant writing and fundraising at the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) in Manhattan – one of the leading immigrant rights nonprofits in New York State. At a meeting to plan its annual gala, our development team sat in a conference room to discuss which honorary guests to invite to that year’s ceremony. Like many nonprofits, the NYIC uses the facade of a “gala” to widen their fundraising pipeline — giving “awards” to donors who bring in other big donors.
Sitting quietly for most of the meeting, I reacted when one particular name came up for the VIP shortlist. It was that of Representative Joe Crowley who, at the time, represented the NY-14 Congressional district of the Bronx and Queens. As the junior member of the team, I usually hesitated to give input at such meetings. But caring enough about the future of the coalition, I felt compelled to chime in to say, “Hey, Crowley has a primary challenge this year. You might want to look into that race before deciding if we want to invite him to the gala.”
Without hesitation, the director laughed, saying, “Oh, Crowley is never going to lose. That’s ridiculous. I mean, who is even running in that race?” Eventually, Crowley did lose his seat to a 28-year-old Latina bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I left the NYIC a month after that meeting to work on AOC’s historic campaign. That was one day after the coalition officially endorsed Crowley.
How did the NYIC get it so wrong? Why didn’t they endorse a candidate that had a much better platform on immigration? Why didn’t they see the significance of AOC’s being one of the first congressional candidates to call for the abolition of ICE? Why did they support a white corporate Democrat over a working-class woman of color?
Of course, it was not because of his politics that Crowley was invited to the gala or endorsed by the coalition. He was on the path to succeed Nancy Pelosi as the highest-ranking Democrat in the House, and his presence at the gala was expected to attract new corporate donors and potential board members. Although it would have been more in keeping with the goals of the NYIC to have endorsed AOC during her primary, the immediate need to bring in dollars prevailed. As a result, the nonprofit lost a huge opportunity to take a powerful stand and boost its national profile.
Although the NYIC does excellent work on legal aid services and provides useful resources to some undocumented immigrants, my experience there taught me that immigrants lose politically because the nonprofit industrial complex is structurally ill-equipped to lead a movement. The nonprofit industrial complex is configured in such a way that it is nearly impossible to challenge those who control the flow of funding. Its members are dependent upon wealthy elites who use their donations as leverage to quash criticism. This instinct to court big donors and well-established names creates blind spots for otherwise well-meaning consultants and activists within the nonprofit, preventing it from noticing when a movement like AOC’s is about to catch fire. Furthermore, by soliciting corporate donations or political favors from individuals that behave rapaciously in other spheres, nonprofits jeopardize their moral integrity as advocates for groups in need.
Another high-profile guest that found his way onto the NYIC’s shortlist for the gala was Michael Bloomberg. Again, I protested, arguing that it contradicted the coalition’s mission to celebrate a man who had for years enforced the traumatizing policy of stop-and-frisk that tore immigrant families apart. The fact that the former mayor of New York was then as now a big anti-Trump donor did not exonerate him. Ultimately, the coalition settled on Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling, who was subsequently tapped by Governor Cuomo to carry out massive cuts to Medicaid, which will undoubtedly hurt immigrant families.
Other times when the NYIC compromised its goals came in the form of its endorsements through their political arm. Perhaps one of the most troubling examples was the organization’s alliance with former Bronx State Senator Jeff Klein, the architect of the Independent Democratic Conference. Klein led a group of Democrats who essentially caucused with Republicans to block key progressive legislation, including the New York DREAM Act and the Sanctuary State Act. Despite his deplorable record on immigration rights, Klein was endorsed by the NYIC in his competitive reelection in 2018 after he dangled the promise of government money for a legal aid fund. Klein eventually lost his primary after being challenged from the left by Alessandra Biaggi. The coalition once again found itself on the wrong side of history.
Another earlier endorsement that stood in direct opposition to the coalition’s long-term goals was their support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic Primary. While there are legitimate criticisms of Bernie Sanders’ record on immigration, Clinton was part of an administration that oversaw the deportation of 2.5 million immigrants – more than all deportations in the previous century combined. Even as late as 2015, Clinton defended the call to deport children fleeing violence from Central America, claiming it would send a “responsible message” to their families. Despite this shameful distinction, Wall Street executives and institutions like JP Morgan, who were among the NYIC’s top donors, certainly would not have been pleased if the nonprofit they helped bankroll endorsed a Democratic Socialist.
This reluctance to ruffle their heavyweight donors may have also been one reason the NYIC was notably absent from the May Day protests on Wall Street in 2018, when several grassroots immigrant groups protested outside of JP Morgan, demanding that they stop financing private detention centers.
Philanthropy for wealthy liberals is often about gaining political access and exercising class power, often to the degree that few imagine. According to the New York Times, charitable donations by corporate foundations seeking to buy political leverage amounts to about $1.3 billion, which is 40% more than corporate lobbying expenditures. If they are to be part of a genuine grassroots movement, mainstream immigrant rights groups must wean themselves from their dependency on big money from big donors. While this may sound scary, it is not at all impossible or unprecedented. The 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign was able to outraise all primary opponents without taking a single corporate dime, with his top donors being teachers, nurses, and truck drivers. AOC can outperform Nancy Pelosi using the same playbook as well. With new technologies to raise money from texting to social media ads, small-dollar fundraising is the wave of the future.
For the immigrant rights movement to succeed, it needs to develop a broad base of small-dollar donors, as these are the people who are invested enough to take direct action and make calls to elected officials. A cue can be taken from one of the most successful lobbying organizations – the NRA. The gun lobby is powerful not only because weapons manufacturers fund them. With about half of the NRA’s funding coming directly from active membership dues, it is able to flood congressional phone lines whenever the slightest whisper of gun control legislation pops up. Compare its success to that of nonprofits, which failed to mobilize enough support for meaningful immigration reform during the Obama administration despite two years with a Democratic president and majorities in both the House and the Senate.
Another problem with big donors is that they tend to be wealthy white liberals who have long muddied the argument for immigration reform with clunky and often dehumanizing tropes. For example, to essentially say that “DREAMers are good for business,” woefully exposes their self-interest and lack of empathy. A better approach is to create spaces for undocumented immigrants to lead the movement themselves. We can learn from youth-led groups like Movimiento Cosecha, which has a decision-making committee composed entirely of undocumented immigrant activists. Not beholden to wealthy, white liberal donors, Cosecha does not hold back on its demand for permanent protection for all 11 million undocumented immigrants – rather than just the two million protected under the DREAM act.
Every social justice cause ultimately requires the oppressed party to achieve self-determination and liberation itself because only they can write their narrative. The legendary anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko created the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa because he understood that unless Black South Africans took charge of their own destiny, they would have to settle for a watered-down “reform” of apartheid rather than its abolition. The struggle for immigrant rights is no different. Groups led by actual undocumented activists understand we cannot reform the racist structure that prevents the free and dignified movement of people – we must abolish it. We must fight to protect all 11 million and not settle for anything less. Only when immigrants lead, will the movement be able to make the appropriate moral decision of the hour.
James Taichi Collins is a “Zainichi” Korean-American, born and raised in Wakayama, Japan. He moved to the United States in 2012 to attend college at the University of Delaware, where he received his degree in Political Science and became a community organizer. He has since worked in various electoral races from Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s 2018 primary, to Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign in Iowa. James identifies as a socialist and currently resides in Astoria, Queens.