The Trump Administration ended DACA on September 5, 2017, igniting a wave of anguish and fear in communities throughout the country. Since 2012, hundreds of thousands of young people came out of the shadows to register for the DACA program hoping that that would be the first step to becoming full participants in the U.S., the country many know as their only home. Despite the dark cloud of uncertainty in their lives, young immigrants are rising up, full of hope. They are organizing the social justice movement of our generation, advocating for a DREAM Act that would give young immigrants a path to citizenship, and pushing for comprehensive immigration reforms to help millions of undocumented immigrants as well.
I was boarding a flight at the crack of dawn to Los Angeles when the Trump Administration announced that it was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Since 2012, this program has provided young, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children – commonly referred to as “Dreamers” – with protection from deportation and work permits. Scrolling through the headlines, I knew it would be a rough day. Not only was the Administration ending DACA, but it was doing so in a ridiculously cruel way. The announcement ended DACA for new applicants – many of whom were high school students who dreamed of pursuing higher education using DACA – while giving those already with DACA just one month to submit applications to renew their status if their work authorization ended by March 5, 2018. Dreamers were left to learn about the announcement on their own and determine whether or not they qualified.
154,000 Dreamers could extend their protective status for two more years. But they didn’t get any letters or receive a phone call. There was no outreach to encourage them to renew.
Immigrant communities and advocates were outraged by the announcement. Protests erupted in cities across the country. People were angry, and rightly so. Our government was breaking a promise made by President Obama that had radically improved the lives of the 800,000 young immigrants enrolled in the program. For years Congress had both acknowledged the need to reform America’s broken immigration system, but failed to do so, leaving millions of immigrants unable to come out of the shadows. DACA was a small, temporary solution for young people as we waited for Congress to fix our broken system.
In 2012, President Obama gave the executive order to establish DACA, under which the federal government promised not to deport immigrants who were brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday, were enrolled in school, had graduated from high school, or were honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the U.S. Instead, the government would grant them permission to work and provide them with Social Security numbers. In return, Dreamers would register with the Department of Homeland Security and provide them with all of their personal information. Like the 800,000 Dreamers who registered for DACA, at MAF, we too believed in that promise—that they could live openly in the light of day.
When President Obama first created DACA, we started providing zero-interest loans to finance the high application fee (now $495). We worked with over 1,000 Dreamers in the last 5 years. For MAF, this was personal.
We witnessed the benefits of DACA on a daily basis. With DACA, we saw first-hand that our clients were better supporting themselves and their families by accessing higher paying jobs. They opened bank accounts and began saving. By every metric, DACA propelled them forward, unleashing their creative energy and human potential. With DACA, some of our clients enrolled in school, became doctors or nurses. Others, like Gustavo, secured better-paying jobs. He stopped cleaning houses and was able to get work as a Wells Fargo bank teller serving the Latino community
I spent the next day in Los Angeles, fielding emails and trying to think through next steps. Thursday morning, I was back in the MAF’s office where we had our first post-announcement staff meeting. We talked about our options, trying to figure out how to proceed. Doing nothing was not an option. Without knowing exactly how, on that morning we resolved to help as many Dreamers as possible to renew their status.
Dreamers only had four weeks to renew before the October 5 deadline, so every minute mattered. With that in mind, we agreed to offer zero-interest loans, but on a much larger scale than ever before. We were going national with these loans. This would be a huge operational challenge for us for two reasons. First, up until this point, we’d only financed DACA application fees for Dreamers in California. Second, although MAF is a national organization, we work through a network of nonprofit partners to serve clients outside of California. For the sake of efficiency, we needed to outreach to and directly serve clients all over the U.S., regardless of geography- for the first time ever.
We set a goal to finance 1,000 applications in 30 days – the same number of loans we had provided in the last five years.
I began contacting funders to solicit support for our new loan fund. We needed $500,000, and fast. While I was working the phones for funding, MAF staff members were working furiously to operationalize the new loan fund. Our communications team built a new website specifically for the DACA renewal loans, complete with a clock that tracked the number of minutes left before the window to apply for renewal closed. Our tech team streamlined our existing loan application by stripping out any information that wasn’t absolutely essential to processing the loan requests, and built a system for rapidly reviewing and confirming an applicant’s eligibility to renew at this time.
By the end of that first week, we’d secured a million dollars in commitments from the Weingart Foundation, James Irvine Foundation, Chavez Family Foundation, and Tipping Point Community. With their support, we doubled our original goal accordingly and aimed to help 2,000 DACA recipients to apply for renewal. It was an absurdly ambitious and risky goal, one that could put MAF’s finances in a potential cash-flow crisis. But we had to do it. If ever there was a time to put it all on the line, it was now.
One week after the announcement to end DACA, we were ready to launch the new loan fund. We had 21 days until the deadline.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 12, we sent a series of emails and press releases to media outlets, colleagues, funders, and immigrant rights activists. I was in New Jersey that day, preparing to deliver a keynote address later that evening, when I received a call from Fred Ali, the Chief Executive Officer of the Weingart Foundation, asking us to consider offering grants instead of loans. He argued that the urgency and gravity of the situation necessitated grants and that loans, even at zero interest, would pose a barrier to some Dreamers. I was reluctant to make the shift right after launching the campaign, but hearing his commitment to work with us made it easier to take the plunge. Thanks to Fred, a new path forward opened for us.
I quickly called MAF’s leadership team and we agreed to revise our strategy. We re-launched the campaign later that day offering $495 scholarships to DACA recipients who needed to renew. By Thursday, September 14, just two days after launching the campaign, we received more than 2,000 applications. The campaign’s website briefly crashed due to the heavy traffic. We were ecstatic at the response, but the overwhelming interest created a number of new operational challenges. First, there was a very real possibility that we would run out of money. Part of the problem was timing. While we had secured commitments from funders, we had not received the money in our bank account. We had to front MAF’s general operating money while funders worked through their approval and disbursement processes.
Just 48 hours into the campaign, the first 2,000 applicants had already claimed all of the $1,000,000 in DACA grant funds.
I remember the conversations with my leadership team about how to proceed as some of the most nerve-racking of the entire campaign. We were literally watching the clock, counting down the hours until we would run out of money. That night, we considered shutting down the program. Very quickly, we’d met our goal of helping 2,000 Dreamers, which was already double what we’d originally planned for. But the truth was that we could not stop. Ending DACA was a national emergency, and we refused to abandon our community in the midst of it.
We considered reverting back to zero-interest loans. But we didn’t want to do that either. It would have been extremely complicated and confusing. Instead, we changed our messaging to alleviate some pressure. We started encouraging applicants to first consider asking for support from friends or family members before requesting funds from MAF. We trusted that those who could self-select out of the process would do so, in turn reducing demand and increasing the likelihood that we would assist those most in need. We agreed that I’d work the phones to push for more funding.
Ultimately, through the course of the campaign we raised $4 million dollars, eight times more than our initial goal. While I’d like to say that the money was a response to my exceptional fundraising skills, that wasn’t the case.
Funders understood the urgency of the situation, and many of them were able to expedite their approval processes – which usually takes months – into just hours or days. Fred Ali was working the phones too; he contacted his colleagues at other foundations, vouching for us and asking that they consider supporting the campaign. And like Fred, we had so many other funders working behind the scenes, calling colleagues and allies they knew would care and could commit quickly. Many of them contributed to the renewal fund, increasing our goal to helping 6,000 Dreamers renew their DACA status. Aside from the funding and cash flow challenges, we were now faced with a slew of major operational ones.
In theory, the process to deliver funds to applicants was simple. MAF would write a check to the Department of Homeland Security for $495, and mail it to the applicant, who would include it in their application package. But in practice, we hit wall after wall. For starters, there was the question of how to cut so many checks so quickly. During the earliest days of the campaign, when we were receiving upwards of 800 applications a day, I was traveling for work and our Chief Operating Officer was in Chile. Because we are the only two people authorized to sign MAF checks, this created an immediate bottleneck.
Our first workaround was a signature stamp. Aparna Ananthasubramaniam, Research and Technology Director, confirmed with our bank would recognize a stamp, got me onboard with the idea with a few days, but even that was too slow.
With applications coming in by the hundreds each day; and seeing our target go from 3,000 to 4,000, and then finally to 6,000 renewals, we needed to find a better alternative.
Within a few days, we outsourced the task to a third-party processor to manage the bulk of the work, allowing us to focus on the approval process and applications that needed individual attention. This was a huge weight off of our shoulders. Just like with cutting checks, mailing them sounded straightforward but proved enormously difficult. Prior to this campaign, MAF had never primarily communicated with clients via snail mail. Consequently, we didn’t have much experience sending large volumes of mail, and didn’t realize that it is both an art and a science, until it was almost too late.
Our original plan had been to send the checks via priority mail. To do this we needed the appropriate “priority mail” envelopes, which are available for purchase at every post office. So, on that first day, Mohan Kanungo, Director of Programs & Engagement, drove to the nearest post office to buy supplies. However, there weren’t enough envelopes for the hundreds of checks we needed to mail. So, he drove to another one. And then another.
Soon, MAF staff and their loved ones were driving all over the Bay Area to raid post office supplies. At one point, Mohan charged $2,400 worth of mailing supplies to his personal credit card.
He couldn’t use a company card because he’d given it to a fellow MAF staffer who was using it to purchase supplies at other post offices. Because we were new to bulk mailings, we also didn’t know that there is a specific way you are supposed to do them. MAF staff showed up with huge boxes of envelopes, figuring we would mail them the way we would any other letter. Turns out that our method was extremely inefficient because the post office had no way to processes the envelopes in bulk. Rather, each one had to be processed individually, which took approximately 1 – 2 minutes, meaning mailing hundreds of envelopes could take hours.
No one was happy about this. The postal workers were frustrated by the massive inconvenience it caused them because they were understaffed, too. We were upset with ourselves, as well. MAF staff had to remain at the post office for hours at a time while each letter was processed. It was time we didn’t have. Soon postal workers simply began refusing to process our mailings. Staff would get rejected at one post office and drive to another in the hopes they could mail it from there. Or they’d split a large mailing into a couple of smaller ones that would be less onerous to process, and get them out that way
Tara Robinson, Chief Development Officer, called the local office of the regional representative of the United States Postal Service, where she spoke with a woman in the business service network department. Tara asked her, “Do you know about the Dreamers?” She said, “Yes!” After explaining what MAF was doing and why there was such a time crunch, the postal worker worker jumped into action. We found our advocate. That same day, she organized a conference call with supervisors from numerous area post offices during which she instructed them to accept all of MAF’s mailings. Our postal shero explained how to create a manifest for our mail so that the postal workers could scan all of our envelopes in bulk instead of individually. She also provided the direct name and number of the Postmaster General if we ran into more problems.
Fueling our anxiety was the fact that we had promised applicants a response within 48 hours of submitting the initial application.
Initially, we thought that 48 hours was a relatively fast turnaround time. But in a time of crisis, 48 hours can feel like forever. Our office was constantly flooded with calls, emails, Facebook messages, and in-person visits, from applicants wanting to confirm that we had received their request and wanting to know when to expect the check.
Every single person on staff was answering phones and fielding inquiries – including me. We were woefully understaffed to field the volume of inquiries we were receiving, and decided we needed a more transparent and robust set of communications with our applicants. Aparna drafted a series of emails that would be automatically sent to applicants as their application worked its way through our process. One email was sent to confirm receipt of the application; another was sent to confirm that we had all of the necessary materials to review it; a third went out to confirm that it was approved; and a final email was sent confirming when to expect the check. We even created another automated email to tell applicants to expect another email soon with tracking information. It seems over the top, but these email communications considerably lowered the call volume.
While the automated communications helped to significantly reduce the volumes of calls and emails we received, we remained severely understaffed relative to the workload. We hired temporary staff but quickly realized that wasn’t going to work due to the nature of the highly sensitive information we were processing. So, we turned to our friends and colleagues, including La Cocina, and other key allies at Salesforce and Tipping Point, all of whom excused staff from work and sent them to our office to volunteer.
Then the office of the Governor of Washington contacted us and said “We heard you were the nationwide provider of DACA scholarships. We have an anonymous donor in the state of Washington. Can you process $125,000 of scholarships for our residents?”
Hundreds of organizations – both small and big – helped us to spread the word. There were videos, memes, vloggers and even a social media sweepstake sponsored by the Clever Girls Collaborative. The President of the University of California sent several press releases and social media messages to inform students about the scholarships, as did the President of the California Community Colleges. Without solicitation from our team, some funders approached us asking how they could support the initiative. Across the country, immigrant rights groups and legal aid organizations we’d never worked with before were advertising our renewal fund to their clients.
Spreading the word beyond the Bay Area was important because many of those organizations were operating in communities that lacked support for Dreamers, either because of the local political climate or because they were in rural, isolated areas, like Mississippi and Utah. We attribute a lot of our ability to reach these communities to incredible responses from both the media and social media. The campaign received more than 1,000,000 social media hits, and more than 100 media mentions, including coverage in New York Times, NPR, and Washington Post, among other prominent outlets.
We were humbled to give $3.8M to 7,678 Dreamers – making this the largest DACA renewal fund in the nation.
In the fall of 2017, MAF provided $2,513,610 to fund 5,078 DACA renewal applications in 46 states – that’s 6.7 percent of all renewal applications submitted. That means we funded one out of every ten Dreamers in the state of California who applied for a renewal, including 16 percent of all applicants in the Bay Area. And in January 2018, days after U.S. District Judge William Alsup’s injunction, MAF issued an additional 2,600 grants to Dreamers.
As one Bay Area legal aid attorney told me, “Again and again and again, Dreamers walked into our offices to apply for a renewal with a MAF check in hand.”
Over the past several months, all of us at MAF have spent a lot of time reflecting on the campaign, thinking about what worked, what didn’t, and how the experience should shape our work moving forward. The campaign is a bittersweet victory. In terms of impact, we exceeded our wildest ambitions. We stood as a beacon of love and support for immigrants at a time when so many of our friends, families, and clients felt under attack. Nonetheless, as an organization we have struggled to celebrate the campaign because it represents the end of DACA. We believe in an America that is so much better than this, and remain stunned and absolutely livid that the Trump Administration ended DACA without offering a permanent legislative solution, leaving millions of young immigrants and their families in anguish. Living with that sort of pain is difficult. For all the sadness and disgust that we have felt in response to the Trump Administration’s actions, we have also discovered a deeper and more powerful resolve. While I know each MAFista took away something personal from the experience, we share these overarching lessons:
1. Timing is everything.
Proven solutions – no matter how great – are not always the *right* solution for every situation. We launched our fund with loans because making loans is what we do, and we do it well. But given the urgency of the DACA crisis – when we didn’t have time to deal with even the most modest of underwriting processes – loans simply weren’t the right product. At the beginning, we were so steeped in our history that we couldn’t see beyond loans. It took an outsider to open the door to the possibility of scholarships. However, once that door opened, we were flexible, ready to embrace the alternative approach, and operationalize it quickly.
2. Technology is critical to scale.
Time and time again throughout our campaign, we resolved bottlenecks and scaled services with technology. We engaged applicants throughout the country by creating a secure online application through our Salesforce CRM that people could complete and submit to us within minutes. We created automated emails to keep Dreamers informed and engaged throughout the application process. We outsourced the process of cutting checks to clients by building an electronic applicant database that we emailed to our third-party processor. Without question, absent technology, we could not troubleshoot obstacles in real time, and we would have been much more constrained in our ability to reach communities outside the Bay Area.
3. Trust is imperative to success.
Dreamers were willing to share their personal information with MAF – despite the climate of fear in which they were operating – because they knew that we were – and are – on their side. Similarly, funders, including ones that had previously never worked with us, were willing to bet big on us because they trusted their colleagues who vouched for us. Likewise, nonprofits referred their clients to us knowing that we were going to do right by them. All of this happened fast and trust was the key to making the campaign successful.
4. Uncertainty can be your friend.
As nonprofits, we plan our work over the course of years. We create theories of change, strategic plans, and budgets to demonstrate our good stewardship and fiscal management. In normal times, these tried and true practices help mark our progress towards achieving goals. I get it. But we’re not in normal times. In moments like these, no matter how perfect our plans are, the fact is that the fate of millions of families hang in the balance with the next incendiary tweet from Trump. We really don’t know the nature, or extent, of the next Trump-created crisis. This type of uncertainty necessitates a willingness and ability to take the ever-changing political climate into account, and change programmatic strategies accordingly.