Foundations bankrolling advocates for aliens

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Wealthy philanthropic foundations are helping bankroll the pro-immigration movement, while groups advocating for tighter control of U.S. borders say they take a more grass-roots approach to raising money.

The Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and Democratic activist George Soros are among the liberal funders that have donated millions of dollars to pro-immigration groups, as the Senate continues its debate on a contentious bill that would overhaul the nation’s immigration policy.

Three of the nation’s biggest and most influential pro-immigration groups — the National Immigration Forum, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) — collectively received more than $3.25 million from Ford Foundation since 2005.

The three advocacy groups generally support the proposed Senate bill which would give many of the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the U.S. a path to citizenship. The bill also would allow aliens here to bring close family members into the country.

Pro-immigration nonprofit groups say they’re hardly awash in cash compared to organizations lobbying on other contentious issues, such as abortion, the environment and tort reform.

“To me, it’s remarkable how little money goes into immigration reform on both sides of the issue,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “It’s Lilliputian.”

Mr. Sharry said groups on both sides of the immigration issue can rightfully be considered “grass-roots” outfits.

“We have a staff of only 10 people,” Mr. Sharry said of his group, which supports allowing aliens a path to legal residency or citizenship. “These groups on all sides of the debate are small, intense and highly informed.”

But groups supporting stronger immigration policy and tighter border control say they rely more on small donations from individuals than large foundations.

NumbersUSA, which says it has 366,000 members, saw its membership grow 50 percent since Jan. 1 and 18 percent in May, spokeswoman Caroline Espinosa said. Two-thirds of the group’s financial support comes from private people, with the average donation being $40.

“Contrary to what might be popular belief is that the grass-roots aspect is more on our side than the [pro-immigration] side,” Mrs. Espinosa said. “They have more of these organized, established types of groups funding them and driving their activism.”

John Tanton, a retired small-town Michigan ophthalmologist who helped organize Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA and the Center for Immigration Studies, says money alone won’t win the immigration debate.

“Money can be a help, but it also can be a hindrance,” he said. “If you don’t have to go out and meet the public and get shouted at and get direct-mail surveys rejected, then you won’t know about the pulse of the public.

“We’ve had our share of major supporters, but we’ve had to rely on nickel-and-dime support,” Mr. Tanton said.

A complete list of funders isn’t available, as these lobby groups are not legally required to report their funding sources. But many major philanthropic institutions make at least part of their donor lists public, showing a strong pro-immigration bias in their donating.

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