Uncovering JAPA

Noncitizens, Nonprofits, and Methods of Engagement

For millions of U.S. residents who are not citizens by birth or naturalization, each day brings challenges. Since the 2016 election, immigration bans have rolled out and arrests, detainments, hate crimes, and discrimination have increased.

For this reason, planners must pay particular attention to how we engage with noncitizens. C. Aujean Lee’s recent article "Engaging Non-Citizens in an Age of Uncertainty: Lessons from Immigrant-Serving Nonprofits in Los Angeles County" in the Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 85, No. 3) is particularly relevant as we think about these issues.

Lee begins by looking at the contested history of immigration and immigrant statuses from the 1965 Immigration Act, to the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. She notes that because of these policies (especially the latter), the scope of immigrant-serving nonprofit work has expanded beyond addressing integration needs and preserving cultural identity, to advocating for political representation and redistribution of resources for immigrant communities.

Table 2, Summary of findings and recommendations, from "Engaging Non-Citizens in An Age of Uncertainty: Lessons From Immigrant-Serving Nonprofits in Los Angeles County" in JAPA (Vol. 85, No. 3).

Table 2, Summary of findings and recommendations, from "Engaging Non-Citizens in an Age of Uncertainty: Lessons from Immigrant-Serving Nonprofits in Los Angeles County" in JAPA (Vol. 85, No. 3).

Lee draws on 29 semi-structured interviews she conducted with immigrant-serving nonprofits in Los Angeles County, ranging from human service providers, legal services, mental health services, to housing and refugee issues and examines how these organizations were affected by the 2016 election. She concludes the article with three recommendations for practicing planners to better engage with noncitizens in their cities.

1. Planners Must Spend Concerted Time and Effort to Build Trust With Noncitizens

Immediately following the 2016 election Lee noted that noncitizens experienced increases in hate crimes and discrimination. Many feared that their immigration statuses and legal rights would be revoked. Noncitizens understandably may require significant outreach efforts before they even attend their first meeting or are open to receiving services. Concerns about safety and distrust of government will require additional efforts to engage with noncitizens in a meaningful way.

For planners, spending the extra time to communicate to noncitizens their rights to privacy and confidentiality will go a long way in building this trust.

2. Planners Should Use Alternative Spaces of Engagement for Noncitizens

Lee’s interviews indicate that in addition to fears of hate crimes and their legal rights being taken away, noncitizens may be less likely to engage in using their right to assembly due to worries about drawing attention to themselves and being targeted as a result. However, Lee also noted that noncitizens tend to participate and engage outside of their immediate neighborhoods through nonprofits, religious institutions, transnational associations, and social media.

Consequently, planners should consider multiple and varying engagement approaches and meeting spaces. These types of events and workshops can help build trust with noncitizens and assure them that planners are invested in their best interests and well-being.

3. Planners Should Partner With Nonprofits

Nonprofits provide essential, specially tailored services for noncitizens and can be important intermediaries between noncitizens and government agencies. Because of the increased roles nonprofits have in working with noncitizens, they often have a better understanding of noncitizens’ needs and the impacts of certain policies. Furthermore, because of their tailored services, and mediation in government affairs, noncitizens often rely much more on nonprofits than government agencies.

Partnering with nonprofits can also prevent planners from “parachuting” into these communities, asking for participation and feedback without developing any meaningful connections with noncitizens.

Noncitizens experience disparate access to traditional forms of engagement and share concerns about their safety and immigration status, which has often led to the distrust of the government services and officials.

As planners who aim to serve the needs of all those in their communities, acknowledging these concerns and adjusting traditional engagement methods will be a meaningful step towards building trust and relationships with these members of our communities, whose perspective we so desperately need if we wish to make our cities more inclusive and welcoming to all.

Top image: Churches and other nonprofits have long been spaces of engagement for noncitizens in the U.S. Wikimedia Commons photo (CC BY-SA 3.0).


About the Author
Antonio Castañeda is a Master in Urban Planning candidate at Harvard University.

December 5, 2019

By Antonio Castaneda