Immigrant Assimilation and NGOs: Mixed Messages

By Stanley Renshon, February 17, 2011

Among the many important, useful, and neglected recommendations of the 1997 report of the Barbara Jordan Commission was the following (p. 29, emphasis added):

The Commission believes that the federal government should take the lead and invite states and local governments and the private sector to join in promoting Americanization.

It further recommended (p. 34, emphasis mine) that state governments be encouraged to set up resource centers in local communities that,

could develop, translate and disseminate materials; foster partnerships among immigrant interest groups, ethnic churches, and service providers (advisory boards, taskforces, planning boards, coalitions); and develop volunteer networks in immigrant communities to help newly arriving immigrants.

In theory those recommendation makes a lot of sense. Local communities are where immigrants actually live and, as a result, they are the real venue of assimilation. But the realities of local immigrant-helping groups are much more complex and equivocal when viewed from their perspective on assimilation.

A substantial number of the labor, religious, ethnic, legal, and civic non-governmental organizations formed to help new immigrants have their own strong views on immigration policy. And a number of them feel that it is not their responsibility to help new immigrants make the transition from attachment to their "home counties" to their new community here. Indeed, some immigrant advocacy groups in the NGO world explicit feel it is their role to help new immigrants retain their ties to the countries that they left.

Moreover, even if a particular NGO does provide appropriate services, and takes no adversarial position toward the concept of assimilation, it can often be affiliated with organization that does cross the line into policy and political advocacy.

A few years back, one of my graduate students, Wilneida Negron conducted a study exploring the "Assimilative Factors of Immigrant Organizations in NYC." She studied a sample of the immigrant organizations listed in the Mayor's Office of Immigration Affairs and examined the extent to which they engaged in activities that helped foster assimilation, or not. She also examined the extent to which these organizations included in that listing of the mayor's officially sanctioned immigration NGOs were allied with other immigrant advocacy organizations.

Among her findings was the fact that many of the mayor's selected NGOs both provided assimilation services (mostly language services), but also engaged activities that reinforced immigrant ties to the "home country." She also found that many of the mayor's immigration groups she studied collaborated and were affiliated with the New York Immigration Coalition, an umbrella group representing over 200 smaller immigrants groups and organizations.

That organization was decidedly activist, with political campaigns to further their views, which they describe as follows: "The NYIC plays a leadership role in the fight for immigration reform, which includes a path to citizenship, reuniting families, protecting workers' rights, and restoring due process." No need to guess where they stand on the many immigration issues that are being debated.

Among their specific views and efforts are: political action to stop federal state partnerships for immigration law enforcement and the development of a programs to train local community organizers to build grassroots support for the collations policies and to put pressure on state and local governments to further their immigration policy agenda. Perhaps not surprisingly, the NYIC calls for "comprehensive immigration reform": a privileging of "family unity" over skills or education in admissions criteria, and, of course, legalization ("path to citizenship") for the country's 11-12 million illegal immigrants.

Organizations like the NYIC are much more focused on their political agenda for immigration policy than they are on helping new immigrants become part of the American national community. They are focused, for example, on "language access" – requiring local authorities to provide "free translation, interpretation and other communication assistance services to limited-English-proficient (LEP) New Yorkers" so that they may benefit from city services – than they are in actually helping new immigrants learn English.

These are legitimate undertakings for an immigration political advocacy organization but they should not be confused non-partisan efforts to help new immigrants become Americans. And to the extent that groups who present themselves as focused on the latter become affiliated and collaborate with their more politically-focused counterparts, they dilute and perhaps even compromise what they say is their core mission.

Yet, the dilemma is that these local immigrant organizations do provide valuable services to new immigrants in the form of language training and help with navigating the intricacies of everyday life in a new country.

How then can we help ensure their focus stays on this core assimilation mission?

Next: "A Statement of Principles for American NGOs dealing with Immigrant Assimilation"