What we can learn about immigration from one Democratic convention speaker

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The Democratic National Convention begins today, with a host of well-known political figures addressing the audience over the next few days — including first lady Michelle Obama, former presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and, of course, presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton.

{mosads}Sharing the stage will be a lesser-known, but no less interesting, figure: Astrid Silva. While Silva’s American story is no longer a secret, it is worth recounting that she was born in the U.S. to undocumented parents, meaning until President Obama signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), her legal status was in a perilous state. As it has for thousands of other Dreamers, DACA offered Silva the chance to pursue a life in the country with many fewer legal worries.

As interesting as her own immigrant story is Silva’s work as the organizing director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN). Nonprofit organizations like PLAN provide a voice for immigrant communities that have often been left out of politics, especially during elections. As 501(c)(3) nonprofits, these organizations cannot endorse candidates or participate in partisan electioneering, but a host of other opportunities exist to mobilize immigrant communities, including registering new voters, holding candidate forums and educating the community about voting. Silva will take the stage at the Democratic convention as a remarkable individual, but it is her work at PLAN that organizations across the country can learn from.

PLAN’s work illustrates much of what I discovered in writing my forthcoming book, “Immigrants and Electoral Politics.” First, it does a lot. PLAN pursues a broad agenda focused on a variety of policy issues including healthcare, environmental justice and mining. While it represents a diverse community of color made up of many immigrants, its agenda isn’t constrained to immigration policy. Organizations that serve immigrants care as much about the quality of local schools, secure job opportunities and decent housing options as they do national immigration reform. I’ve also found that a varied policy agenda is associated with a higher likelihood of participating in electoral activities: A majority of organizations with a multifaceted mission participated in some electoral activity in 2012, compared to just a quarter of those with a narrowly focused mission.

PLAN does a lot, but it doesn’t do it alone. It operates as a coalition of 30 other organizations which support PLAN and derive common benefits from its work. The collective action of the alliance PLAN leads in Nevada resembles similar coalitions in New York, Chicago and Detroit. These coalitions tie together the work of hundreds of smaller organizations that often lack the resources to fully participate in politics on their own. This is significant because most immigrant-serving nonprofits (60 percent, based on my survey research) do not participate at all in this type of electoral work, meaning many communities, especially those without a coalition in place, have almost no organized efforts to mobilize immigrants.

Because of that low level of participation, effective organizations, such as PLAN, also must work at civic engagement all the time. For civic engagement to truly work, organizations do it as an ongoing activity, not one restricted to the months leading up to an election. Conceived of in this way, organizations can devote staff to civic engagement throughout the year and then link that work to other recurring policy activities.

Nonprofits also operate in complex and sometimes hostile political environments that vary from state to state and even within a state. Organizations that serve immigrants, in particular, are subject to changing laws which have targeted immigrants over the last decade. PLAN explains its civic engagement work with respect to voter suppression policies — such as stringent new voter identification rules — that have disproportionately affected people of color and immigrants.

In other parts of the country, I found that new voting rules ostensibly aimed to curb voter fraud are associated with reduced nonprofit voter registration activities. In Florida, for example, my evidence showed that immigrant nonprofits were much less likely to register voters in 2012 after the state passed a law that threatened to impose steep penalties if an organization made a mistake in voter registration paperwork.

Finally, PLAN develops local leaders. As Hahrie Han has shown in her work, effective organizations mobilize people, not just voters. Developing leaders in a community can make civic engagement activities sustainable over the long-term and transform community members into community leaders.

Astrid Silva won’t be representing PLAN when she delivers her address to the convention, but she will be representing the thousands of immigrants, many undocumented, who are served by nonprofit organizations. When effective, these nonpartisan organizations enhance the democracy by promoting civically engaged communities and full political participation.

Brown is an assistant professor of public policy at the City University of New York, Graduate Center and John Jay College. His book, “Immigrants and Electoral Politics,” will be published this October by Cornell University Press.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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