Current Events and Philanthropy / New Works in the Field

Crossing the border between helping and being helped: Informal Giving and the U.S. Immigrant Crisis

Editors’ Note: Jamie Goodwin introduces her research on the informal giving network of immigration communities at the U.S. Southern border. [Haga clic aquí para la versión en español de este artículo.]

“Our principal thesis is that a river of care rises…and that we must trace its flow through all its branches, including all those hidden yet abundant channels that mean much to those who drink from them, but frequently go unnoticed by others.”

Paul Schervish and JJ Havens

Angelina’s father took her from her home in Navarrete, Mexico when she was six, then crossed the border into the United States covered by blankets with her and her two-year-old sister in the back of her uncle’s van. Elisa’s family fled Honduras after a gang repeatedly threatened her daughter at school. Raúl ran a small tortilla business until a local gang started banging on his door at night demanding a percentage of the profits. Junior and Makenson, young men, fled the most recent earthquake in Haiti. (Some of the names in this piece have been changed to preserve the privacy of those involved).

Throughout late 2017 and 2018, the sojourners made their way to Tijuana, Mexico. Through quiet exchanges in ‘tianguis’ (pop-up markets), on the beach, or selling trinkets at the border, they met one another and learned of a safe shelter in a small, cinderblock church, Camino de Salvación. Multi-vocational pastor, historian and sociologist Jose Altamirano had not planned on opening an ‘albergue’ (shelter) for immigrants. He simply wanted to continue to provide a safe place for Angelina after years of bouncing from place to place in the U.S. between family members’ homes, eventually resulting in her deportation. She stayed with families in his congregation for several months. Altamirano said that opening the ‘albergue’ taught him more about human interaction than any academic training. Individuals and families continued to arrive, with a surge the week of October 22, 2018. That week Camino de Salvación received seven adults and 13 children more, bringing the total residents of the make-shift shelter to 33, according to a Facebook post. Altamirano has since stated the number of residents has increased to 40.

Informal Philanthropy and the Immigrant Crisis

 While much has been written regarding foundations, mega-donors, and advocacy groups involved in the current U.S. immigration debate, less is known about the philanthropic networks of the immigrants themselves. My research focuses on examining the philanthropic dimensions of immigration communities at the U.S. Southern border, both in partnership with scholars at Fuller Seminary’s Latino Center and also from the living texts, or experiences of the people in the midst of the crisis. Informal communities create reciprocal networks of helping and being helped. Especially among materially poor, threatened, and migrant communities, informal helping is a primary means of philanthropy. Yet it often falls outside the purview of scholarly attention. For example, at a recent conference on Muslim philanthropy, participants commented that informal helping behaviors were often excluded from research projects that map philanthropy in ethnic and religious communities, a methodology which resulted in activity left uncounted and groups ignored. I want to address this gap through a more expansive knowledge of giving, especially amongst immigrant communities.

Caravans of immigrants are supported by groups like Amnesty International, but guests of the Camino de Salvación relied on and contributed to interdependent networks of fellow sojourners, who found themselves together for days while making the journey from Central America to Northern Mexico. On a daily, even moment-by-moment basis, these communities, formed out of need, crossed borders between helping and being helped.

A focus on informal community-level philanthropy disrupts persistent socio-economic myths that the materially poor are primarily beneficiaries of philanthropy, not benefactors. On the contrary, in a panel study of philanthropic behavior in the Netherlands, Pamala Wiepking found that lower income groupsdonated a higher percentage of their income. Sara Konrath found that, more than income, cultural factors such as collectivism, agreeableness and conscientiousness, among others, predicted the emotional reaction of empathy. The materially poor arephilanthropic: their philanthropic behavior simply has been overlooked.

Giving and Global Flows

In some ways these philanthropic networks reflect the findings of Sudhir Venkatesh, who examined underground economies of immigrants in New York City. Similarly, materially poor and migrant communities in both the U.S. and abroad engage in extralegal or illegal voluntary action intended for the public good. Like many examples from the past, such as the early mutualistas that sustained Mexican-American families in the late 1800’s, marginalized groups engage in helping networks when their philanthropic cause is not supported by the state or the voluntary establishment. The underground railroad now being formed for immigrants amongst faith communities in Southern California is another example of such a network. These activities do not lead to the building of traditional institutions—institutions which generally have captured the attention of philanthropy scholarship. Rather, they contribute to the flows of globalization, or as Venkatesh calls it, they help people to ‘float’.

As Venkatesh explains, in for-profit exchanges, globalized underground networks cross socio-economic borders, seeking upward stability for the poor, and illegal goods for the upper classes. In the case of clandestine philanthropy, the socio-economic mixing exists to assist the poor and provides moral expression for all classes.

In an interview with CNN, one host of the underground immigrant railroad stated, “It’s hard as a Jew not to think about both all the people who did open their doors and their homes and take risks to safeguard Jews in moments where they were really vulnerable, as well as those that didn’t. We’d like to be the people who did.”  Los Angeles Protestant Pastor Zach Hoover, commenting on his involvement violating federal law said, “I feel that I answer to God at the end of the day. . . I hope we can live up to who we are.”

Informal Giving and Moral Citizenship

Paul Schervish and JJ Havens propose that theories of the moral citizenship of care are a helpful lens to understand volunteer behavior that transcends the formal/informal philanthropy divide. In their diary study of formal and informal giving and volunteering in the Boston area in the late 1990’s, they found that the time and money devoted to giving informally and providing care for others “were each more than five times the corresponding amounts” given to charitable organizations and causes. According to the authors, people generally understand their voluntary caregiving as unitary; they do not segment consciousness about whether the volunteer gift is through formal or informal means.

Schervish and Havens assert that this informal care is the “root and not the rival” of formal philanthropy. They claim, “Shifting more of our discourse to the complementary language of moral citizenship, moral community, and care opens us to consider a wider array of activities, sentiments, relations, expectations, and inclinations relevant to the creation of community.”

Strangers who create Community

To understand the philanthropy of the residents of Camino de Salvación is to appreciate how they help not only those they know and trust, but give and depend on help from strangers, often from countries with past conflicts. As the situation of migrants on the border becomes more desperate, communities like that of Camino de Salvación construct mutuality from an imperative of necessity. Material efforts to help include sharing meals, helping to find rides and navigate the bus system, looking for work, caring for children and caring for the sick. Many keep long hours inside the shelter, so accompaniment and conversation serve as valuable gifts as well. As the effort is new, the culture is organic. Camino de Salvación has no full-time staff, and few policies and funders. The work is an experiment: its success will depend on the pervasiveness of an ethic of reciprocal generosity of resources and spirit. The challenge facing scholars interested in informal philanthropy is how to engage the topic in a way that does it justice: how to trace hidden channels of giving that may be among our most abundant sources of generosity.

– Jamie Goodwin

Jamie Goodwin is a PhD candidate at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She studies faith and philanthropy; relationships and the public good; and Spanish-speaking communities. She previously served as Executive Director of Global Indiana, Visiting Lecturer at the University of Seville, and Reporter for the Indianapolis Star.

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