The California Community Foundation has just awarded $900,000 to 19 Southern California nonprofit organizations. The grants are the first step in a three-phased Immigrant Integration Initiative to help immigrants integrate more fully into the civic and economic life of Los Angeles County. A total of $3.75 million has been allocated for additional programs in the Foundation’s five-year initiative effort.

Awards range from $25,000 to $200,000 for programs designed to ease tensions between immigrants and long-time residents, advocate for better community food resources and work with developers to influence local housing and commercial design projects. Other grantees will provide immigrants with increased access to job services and English language instruction in the workplace.

Grant recipients at the $25,000 level include Boyle Heights-based Jóvenes, Inc. and the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council. The YMCA of Greater Long Beach and the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of L.A. each received $120,000. The largest grant of $200,000 went to the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. A complete list of grantees is available at

“No one constituency, no one stakeholder, can address the complexity of the problems that we face,” said Linda Wong, vice president of civic engagement for the foundation.

Wong credits regional demographic studies commissioned by the Foundation for propelling it along the initiative pathway toward its goals of social, civic and economic integration for local immigrants.

Reports from both the Migration Policy Institute and USC’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity concluded that immigrant integration was the key to ensuring the health of the national economy; the way to achieve this was through local programs that directly engage immigrants in the integration process. The report also cited low-wage jobs and inadequate work skills and education among many immigrant groups as deterrents to higher-paying, stable employment.

“When we reviewed census data for L.A. County, the information we uncovered was really striking — the fact that one out of every three L.A. County residents is an immigrant, and nearly half of our labor force is made up of immigrants,” Wong said. “This meant that this population was a growing force in the region.”

“The other interesting piece of information is the fact that in California there are six cities that are now majority immigrant, and three of those are in Los Angeles County: Alhambra, Glendale and El Monte. The other one is Santa Ana, and the two remaining cities are up in Northern California: Daly City and Union City.”

Wong said the Foundation gained a further incentive from the 2007 Congressional debate over immigration reform.

“We discussed what the Community Foundation could do in response to the possibility that thousands of people would be coming forward to apply for legal status, and so we felt we needed to prepare for that possibility.” 

Despite a lack of Congressional action, the Foundation decided to pursue the issue anyway, Wong said, due to demographic changes in the County during the past decade.

“The ability of immigrants to attain gainful employment and financial stability are critical to this region’s economic survival,” she said. “How we integrate newcomers into the civil, social and economic life of the community where they live and work has a substantial local impact. Immigrant integration is a local responsibility, it is a responsibility that rests with local government along with the nonprofit and philanthropic community.”

The Foundation is developing a set of evaluation tools to assess the goals of each program, but Wong believes the five-year goal is more a benchmark than a defining event in the quest for full immigrant integration.

“What we hope to see from this first round of grants is some evidence that by engaging them in all these different ways not only will they be invested in the communities where they live, but they will be able to contribute a lot more to the well-being of the neighborhoods,” she said.

The Challenges of Immigrant Integration

The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy wants to bring healthy foods to some of the County’s poorest areas. With its $200,000 grant, Director Madeline Janis envisions citizen committees from three areas — South Los Angeles, East Los Angeles and Pacoima — working together to build a coalition of Latino and African-American residents to attract grocery stores that offer high-quality food and jobs for residents.

“You would think that every community would have basic access to food, but that’s not the case,” she said.

Janis realizes there are challenges in building her coalition.

“We are working in three major neighborhoods in the city of Los Angeles that are what we call retail deserts. That means that they have far fewer important key services like access to food than other parts of the city. In some of those neighborhoods, there’s no healthy food to be found anywhere. Those three neighborhoods are also a home to some of the poorest people in our city,” she said.

Janis admits that the relationships in all three communities between long-term, primarily African-American residents and the newer, Latino immigrants are fragile.

“There have been at some times tensions between the Latino and African-American communities that have to do with new arrivals versus long-time residents and given perceptions about what the problems are and who the culprits are.”

In spite of this, she believes the way for immigrants to become part of the fabric of civic life is for them to work together with people who have lived in their neighborhoods the longest. Communication skills make this goal difficult at times.

“The challenges in organizing which have to do with language barriers, all of our meetings and efforts are bilingual, and for some people who don’t speak Spanish that can feel like a burden, unnecessary, unfair, but it’s necessary to actually have a fully integrated movement, so to speak, of people,” said Janis.

Once the coalition is formed, Janis plans to work with City Council to create the first “grocery reinvestment act,” a new public policy that includes changes in local land use, development incentives and accountability standards for grocery companies that want to locate in these target neighborhoods.

Like Wong, Janis knows it will take time to see results. She’s excited by the opportunity to organize polarized communities around a common goal.

“We believe that access to food is so important,” she said. “We have to have public policy, government that takes some action that makes sure people have access to the things they need most in life.”