Philanthropy Must Confront Our Country’s History of Racist Immigration Policies

Thanks to the leadership of Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), Proteus Fund has joined over 80 foundation and philanthropic organizations in pledging to confront our country’s history of racist immigration policies.

The murder of George Floyd and the Covid-19 pandemic have forced philanthropy to reckon with racism and its deadly disparities.

As our sector considers how we can play a role in shaping a more just and equitable future, we must confront our own roots in white supremacy and the profound ways in which historical inequities continue to manifest themselves today — in funding policies and practices; underinvestment in efforts aimed at dismantling structural racism; and underrepresentation of Blacks, Indigenous people, and people of color within philanthropic leadership.

Philanthropic discussions on racism are long overdue, and they must expand to include immigration because the two issues are inextricably linked. Indeed, the current policy separating immigrant families is rooted in the same racist ideology behind boarding-school policies that tore apart Indigenous families and the slave trade that devastated Black families.

As philanthropy confronts our country’s history of genocide and slavery, our sector must also wrestle with hundreds of years of racist immigration policies — from the 1790 law that allowed only “free white people” to naturalize, to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the Muslim and African bans and exclusion of undocumented immigrants from federal Covid-19 relief in the Trump era.

Anti-immigrant policies in recent years didn’t just come out of thin air. Private philanthropy has financed hate groups substantially and consistently over decades to develop an expansive playbook for reducing immigration by people of color. These hate groups often frame their arguments in seemingly rational and measured ways, sometimes even co-opting progressive language on population, the environment, and racial justice.

But make no mistake: Masquerading behind innocuous terms such as “demographics” and “economics” are the same xenophobia and racism that have driven immigration policy and plagued our society for generations. They demonize, dehumanize, and criminalize immigrants, and they intentionally pit immigrants and Black Americans against one another, aiming to derail our collective efforts to fight injustice.

A recent letter to the editor the Chronicle published exposed two such examples of white supremacist ideology disguised as reasoned perspectives on immigration. Its authors offered a concrete example of how a foundation with a record of bankrolling white nationalist voices and anti-immigrant organizations is not to be believed when it claims to be a proponent of legitimate debate on immigration and “serious about addressing systematic and institutional racism.” The letter rightly named the “mainstreaming of white supremacist ideology” as “one of the greatest challenges of our time” and called attention to the role philanthropy has played in “promoting, funding, and sustaining” anti-immigrant hate groups as “organizations committed to white supremacy.”

In doing so, the letter reminds us that in our painful but necessary reckoning with the legacy of racism in this country, we must remain vigilant against false narratives and clear eyed about their motivation: to halt and reverse demographic change.

For philanthropy to truly live our core values of humanity, equity, and justice, there can be no room for hate in our community. It is time for our sector to have tough conversations about the connections between racism, white supremacy, and attacks against immigrants and refugees. To educate ourselves about anti-immigrant hate groups and our nation’s racist immigration policies. To call out, condemn, and put an end to funding for hate groups. To invest deeply and for the long term in organizations working at the intersection of immigration and structural racism. And to hold ourselves and one another accountable in the fight to end white supremacy and achieve justice and equity for all.