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Fewer donors say they’re willing to give to a charity when it supports immigrants – especially if they’re undocumented

A woman and a child stand on a mat saying 'welcom' and 'bienvenido' in an office.
A woman and her child seek help from CASA, an immigrants rights group, in Maryland in 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

About 45 million of the people who live in the United States are immigrants, a near-record 14% of the population. Among them are, according to government estimates, 11.4 million who are undocumented.

Overall, immigrants are slightly more likely to be low-income than other Americans, and many face discrimination. Also, many immigrants, especially those who are low-income, undocumented or have trouble speaking English, need help getting settled in the U.S. As a result, there are charities that support these newcomers.

Two of us are immigrants from Canada and India who research nonprofits. The other, who studies race and ethnicity and immigration policy, is the child of immigrants from Mexico. We wanted to know whether the immigration status of the people a charity aids can influence the public’s willingness to donate to it.

‘Help Kids Thrive’

To find out, we conducted an experiment by having 1,209 people take an online survey to assess their willingness to donate to an imaginary charity. Participants didn’t know the group we made up, “Help Kids Thrive,” wasn’t a real organization when they heard about its activities. They had to answer some questions about the group and whether they might donate to it.

We hired Dynata, a private firm, to conduct this survey in October 2019. In exchange for their time, the company lets participants earn points that they can redeem for gift cards, loyalty miles and other rewards. The people who took part were a nationally representative group of Americans in terms of their race and ethnicity, geographical region and most age categories – although women and people age 18 to 24 were slightly underrepresented.

To assess whether the demographics of the people a nonprofit like Help Kids Thrive supported matters to Americans, we focused on four groups of beneficiaries. One was families who are homeless or can’t afford basic necessities; a second was families who immigrated recently from three Latin American countries – Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador; a third was families who immigrated recently from three Asian countries – China, India and the Philippines; and the fourth was families from anywhere in Latin America who are undocumented, facing deportation or both.

We chose these countries because they are among the top sources of immigrants to the United States.

Everyone who took this survey was randomly assigned to one of these four groups. They were told that Help Kids Thrive assisted families in one of these categories.

We also experimented with suggested donation amounts. Half could choose to donate either $5, $10, $15 or $20, while the other half saw higher suggested amounts: $20, $40, $60, $80. Across the board, it was also possible for those taking the survey to say they would give nothing at all or to write in their own amount. To be clear, no one gave real money to our imaginary charity.

About half of the survey participants said they would be willing to donate. They wrote in donation amounts from $1 to $500 or selected a suggested amount.

By asking participants three questions about Help Kids Thrive, we could identify the ones – 492 people – who had carefully read the information provided and focus on their responses.

Support less likely for immigrants

Overall, we found people were less willing to donate to the charity when its recipients were described as immigrants. The probability was even lower for immigrants who were undocumented, facing deportation or both.

For example, after controlling for other factors, the average person in the sample had a 67% probability of saying they would donate something to Help Kids Thrive when they were told that it assisted low-income families. If they were told the charity helped immigrants, that probability dropped by 13 or 14 percentage points, to 54% for Latin American immigrants and to 53% for Asian immigrants.

The probability that they would say “yes, I would make a donation to this charity” fell to 47% for undocumented immigrants.

Within the group of participants who read the experiment closely, we found that gender, age and political ideology did not affect their answers. Even their attitudes toward immigrants did not play a statistically significant role in their willingness to donate.

In this study, we focused on immigrants from Latin America and Asia because they have accounted for more than 80% of undocumented immigrants. We did not address the anti-Black discrimination that many immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America face, but believe it’s an important topic to be researched in the future.

People who speak other languages at home

The people completing the survey also answered questions about themselves, such as their age, gender, political affiliations and educational background.

We found that having the same racial or ethnic identity as the charity’s beneficiaries didn’t affect the willingness to donate to this fictitious charity. Identifying as Latino or Hispanic, or having Asian American heritage, made no statistically significant difference. Nor did it matter if survey takers believed that the immigrants assisted were from Latin America or Asia.

But those with strong enough ties to another country that they spoke a language other than English at home were more likely to say they would be willing to donate. The probability that the average survey participant who speaks another language at home would be willing to donate was about 13 percentage points higher than for the average white, non-Hispanic respondent who speaks English at home for every scenario we tested.

Conflict, economic distress and climate change are leading to more migration around the world, including large numbers of people seeking asylum or refugee status in the United States. Because governments lack the resources and the political will to serve immigrants adequately, nonprofits can help fill those gaps.

But raising funds to help undocumented immigrants appears to be much harder for charities, even as these immigrants may need the most help.

This article was updated to clarify that there are 45 million people living in the U.S. who are immigrants.

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