HILSC 2020 Annual Report

HILSC 2020 Annual Report – Responding to COVID-19

From the Desk of the Executive Director

We are built for times like these – Justice in the Intersection

A Letter from the Executive Director

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Through network collaboration and participatory grantmaking, HILSC, led by our dynamic executive committee, has developed a system of issue-focused working groups and committees that inform our projects and goals. Our organizational blueprint (image to the right) gives you an overview of the relationships between our diverse areas of work.

Click on the buttons below to learn more:

HILSC convenes the quarterly meetings to provide a gathering space for members of our collaborative network to engage on critical changes and evolving trends in immigration legal and social services

The pandemic forced us to pivot to virtual meetings. Our staff learned new skills and adapted to evolving tech trends to bring energy and engagement to the quarterlies. The virtual format also yielded unintended opportunities for greater accessibility to those that were not always able to attend in person and made the gatherings more linguistically accessible with interpretation.

Breakout Topics:

  • Census 2020 – Kate Vickery, HILSC
  • HILSC Network Emergency Response Plan – Katy Atkiss, HILSC
  • Public Charge: Social Services Strategy – Miriam Camero, RAICES
  • Public Charge: Legal Strategy – Paola Copeland, MAM
  • Asylum Seekers Support Systems – Gislaine Williams, The Alliance
  • The Muslim/African Ban – Lubabah Abdullah, Tahirih Justice Center (formerly with CAIR-Houston)
  • AccessHOU Workstation

Breakout Topics:

  • Current State of DACAJuan Manuel Guzman, United We Dream
  • Strategies for Inclusion of Vulnerable PopulationsPancho Argüelles, Living Hope Wheelchair Association
  • Integrate Digital Services into your WorkChris Valdez, Houston in Action

Breakout Topics:

  • Disaster and Emergency PreparednessKaty Atkiss, HILSC | Kimberly Haynes, STOR
  • Voter Registration and Civic EngagementBrandon Rhodes, SEIU | Santiago Cirnigliaro and Marla Lopez, Mi Familia Vota
  • Racial Justice and Connection to Immigrant JusticeGuadalupe Fernandez, Tahirih Justice Center | Josephine Sorgwe, UH Immigration Clinic

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Deportation Defense Houston

  • 88 received legal representation
  • 22 individuals won release from detention with DDH representation, many others were released under a mandate from a class action lawsuit
  • 7 people won the right to remain in the United States
  • 57 cases completed
  • 38 referrals from the Immigration Rights Hotline

HILSC launched Deportation Defense Houston (DDH) in June 2018 to fill a critical gap in immigration legal services for detained adult immigrants. Through an innovative collaboration with legal services programs and a new law school clinical program, and integration with the Immigrant Rights Hotline, DDH opened access to legal services to hundreds of immigrants detained in the four ICE facilities in Greater Houston. Since its inception, DDH has represented nearly 200 individuals, helping many win immigration relief and release from detention. DDH also strives to minimize family separation by educating the public about the impacts of the detention-deportation pipeline on our community, collaborating on impact litigation and advocating with public officials for funding to support deportation defense through tours of detention facilities, public testimony, presentation and advisory.

To learn more visit our Deportation Defense Houston page.

PartnersYMCA International Services |BakerRipley | Justice For All Immigrants | South Texas College of Law

FundersThe Beacon Fund | Southern Poverty Law Center | Simmons Foundation | Houston Endowment | Individual Donors

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Border Delegation Trip

In 2019, the Trump administration rolled out the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which forced asylum seekers to “Remain in Mexico” until their court cases were heard. Asylum seekers were forced to live in unsanitary conditions in makeshift camps in dangerous Mexican border towns.

There were hundreds of documented violent attacks on asylum seekers, with countless others going unreported. Thousands of asylum seekers were unable to make it to court because they were kidnapped, killed, and because dangerous living conditions forced them to abandon their cases and leave the region. Of more than 62,000 people subjected to MPP, only 6% have an attorney, and less than one percent have won their case.

In January 2020, a delegation of Houston nonprofits and pro bono counsel went to Brownsville to witness the humanitarian crisis and provide pro bono services. Our delegation served to raise awareness and to increase pro bono services in the border region.

After our trip, we held an event with the Asia Society of Texas to share our firsthand account and heard from an asylum seeker who spent more than 10 months in MPP before winning his case. Over 150 people attended and left better informed, inspired, and equipped to take local, state, and national action.

Below: HILSC’s Legal Director, Andrea Guttin, moderates a panel at the Asia Society of Texas on the “Remain in Mexico” policy and its impact on asylum seekers”

Note: The Biden Administration has since ended the Migration Policy Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” yet tens of thousands of asylees are still being denied entrance to the US under Title 42, which allows for expulsions under an old and obscure public health law.

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Harris County Immigrant Legal Services Fund

Victory! In February 2020, the County Commissioners voted to pass a resolution creating the legal services fund, a huge victory for HILSC and Houston Leads.

$2 million allocated by Harris County in November 2020 to an Immigrant Legal Services Fund to provide free legal counsel to Houstonians facing deportation

$500,000 allocated by Harris County in November 2020 to support legal services for immigrant survivors of crime

Each year, Houston and Harris County residents — parents, siblings, employers, workers, and students — face the possibility of deportation. In one year, ICE deported 6,612 Houston area residents, while over 10,000 people were ordered deported in Houston’s non-detained immigration courts that same year.  There is no right to free legal counsel in the immigration court system, and most people face an immigration judge without an attorney. Yet people who have lawyers are 10.5 times more likely to win their case.

The need for our local government to step in and fund legal representation was clear. In 2020, HILSC and the Houston Leads coalition successfully pushed Harris County to fund legal representation. The County created a $2 million Legal Services Fund to provide free legal services to indigent Harris County residents in detention!   

In support of the fund, HILSC published Communities Torn Apart: the Impact of Detention and Deportation in Houston in 2020. Harris County is home to more than 1.6 million immigrants who have a right to health, prosperity, stability, and due process in court. These rights are threatened by immigration enforcement, detention, and deportation. Our report showed the impact of detention and deportation on Houston’s health, social mobility, and economic stability. These effects ripple beyond the person who is detained, to affect their families and communities. Multiple generations can be impacted by the trauma of one deportation.

To learn more click on the Communities Torn Apart report to the right.

How We Won: Revisiting the Immigrant Legal Services Fund One Year Later

One year ago, I sat in a conference room surrounded by immigrant community members, organizers, lawyers, union leaders, religious leaders, and other allies as we prepared to testify before Harris County’s Commissioners Court in favor of the creation of an Immigrant Legal Services Fund. HILSC and the Houston Leads coalition had been organizing for nearly two years for Harris County to join dozens of other cities and counties across the country to provide free legal services to Houstonians facing deportation. Read More…

The Learnings: Our Path to an Immigrant Legal Services Fund

In November 2020, Harris County allocated $2 million to an Immigrant Legal Services Fund to provide free legal counsel to Houstonians facing deportation. This success came after years of a long and hard push on behalf of community members and advocates. In a coalition, there will be many voices and strategic approaches. For HILSC, a collaborative made up of immigration legal services providers, social services providers, immigrant advocates, and community-based organizations, we must often balance the needs and priorities of our members.  Read More…

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SPOTLIGHT: Crime Victims Working Group

HILSC’s Crime Victims Working Group (CVWG) meets regularly to share trends, offer training and engage in local advocacy to improve access to services for immigrant survivors of crime. 

In 2020, the CVWG partnered with the Victim Services Division of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (DAO) for a continuing legal education training for 80 attorneys. The training covered U Visa eligibility and how to have a trauma-informed practice. The DAO presented their new policy for certification requests, which the CVWG had advocated to improve in 2019. The CVWG also provided training to the DAO’s victims advocates. 

The Working Group was critical in leveraging Harris County’s Immigrant Legal Services Fund to create an additional $500,000 in public funding specifically for survivors of crime. The working group met with a Harris County Commissioner to uplift the needs of the immigrant survivor community, and to share the gaps in capacity facing legal services providers. CVWG members, as well as HILSC staff, testified at Commissioners Court in November 2020, where the fund was unanimously passed.  

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Forensic Evaluations

54 requests for forensic mental health evaluations

43 forensic mental health evaluations completed

$26,250 paid in stipends

3 mentors and 5 mentees in our new mentorship program

10 cases completed under mentorship

Our Forensic Evaluations program, led by clinician Thalia Flores Werner is a collaborative program that brings together legal service practitioners and clinicians to provide forensic mental health evaluations critical to immigration legal cases.

To learn more visit our Forensic Evaluations page. From this page, you are able to:

  • Request a Forensic Evaluation
  • Join the Clinical Directory
  • Search the Clinical Directory
  • Watch Training Videos

Funder: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Immigrant Rights Hotline

1090 people received information and referrals

91 calls per month on average

18% of calls related to COVID-19

38% of calls from the Greater Houston Area

78% of referrals to a HILSC network immigration legal services providers, including Deportation Defense Houston

The Immigrant Rights Hotline is a free resource that provides referrals for immigration legal services, as well as social services and resources in times of disaster, such as COVID. The hotline also shares up-to-date information on immigration issues, as they are impacted by current events, laws, and policies. The purpose of the Hotline is to provide accurate information, dispel fear and empower the immigrant community.

To learn more visit our Immigrant Rights Hotline page.

From this page, you may download Hotline flyers, sample social media posts, and business cards  to share with community members in English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, Hindi, Russian, Korean, and Vietnamese.

Partners: Boat People SOS | Baker Ripley | United We Dream

Funders: New York Community Trust (on behalf of Delivering on the Dream / GCIR) | Center for Disaster Philanthropy | Houston Endowment

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The Pre-Pandemic Plan

The original vision for HILSC’s experimental storytelling endeavor was to produce a live storytelling experience. Supported by insight from our storytelling committee, the original project included a series of experiential workshops that utilized concepts, methods and techniques from contemporary movements around community-based storytelling and devised theatre-making. COVID-19 substantially impacted the lives of our community as well as individual participants. With serious concerns for safety and with compassion towards the current capacity of our project team and storytellers, we redesigned the project.

Points of Entry is a digital storytelling archive featuring storytelling resources and true, personal stories from immigrants and refugees who reside in the Greater Houston Area. The project aims to advance a collective and strategic narrative around immigration and shift public consciousness towards empathy and justice for all immigrants.

Funders: Houston Arts Alliance City’s Initiative | Houston Endowment | Marek Family Foundation | Simmons Foundation

The New Storytelling Project

We redesigned the project to democratize high-quality storytelling and performance resources and to prioritize the creation of a living immigrant storyteller’s archive centering the voices of immigrants and refugees in Houston and Harris County. Through opportunities for individual coaching and group self-care, we continue to prioritize the empowerment of devalued, silenced or excluded voices and to affirm individuals’ agency and humanity in the face of systemic oppression. 


Storytelling and performance training materials in English and Spanish created by a talented team of storytelling and theatre professionals available for free


One-on-one coaching to develop their unique life stories into thoughtfully crafted monologues to narrate their lives in empowering ways and advance a more authentic narrative around the diverse experiences of immigrants


Dedicated resources for individual or group mental health to support our participants as they explore their stories because storytelling can be a heavy process, even if it is cathartic.


Individual video recording of each storyteller’s monologue to be hosted on a digital archive supported by HILSC


Webinar series exploring critical themes around storytelling, mental health and advocacy, along with evaluating what we learned during this experimental process

The Storyteller Bill of Rights

Storytellers own their stories.

HILSC is committed to building an ethical storytelling process that prioritizes the needs, rights and dignity of storytellers. This means that the storyteller is the owner of the story and a decision-maker in our storytelling work. Ensuring that our project protects a storyteller’s ownership of their story means embracing storytelling as more than a commodity for our organization.

We build the platform for those stories to be shared.

To tell stories that are purposely uncommon to the mainstream is commit a radical act of memorialization. It is imperative to invest in stories and storytelling as a method of individual and collective visibility and healing. We cannot diminish complex people by depriving them of their humanity through tropes like the good immigrant / bad immigrant divide. People of color, including immigrants, deserve, without question, to be seen through the lens of their individual and unique experience.

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Bringing social workers into legal settings is not a new phenomenon, social workers are present in child welfare systems, juvenile court systems, and schools. This is not true in the immigration legal services space. Here, the engagement of social workers is new. Part of the work at HILSC is to not just expose social workers to critical roles they play in immigration justice, outside of clinical work, but also to encourage attorneys to embrace a more holistic integration of services that meet the client’s full range of needs.

Learn more about Social Work & Immigration and engage in our work through:

  • Consultations for your organization to create and strengthen the role of social workers on staff
  • Hosting MSW interns at your organization supervised by HILSC
  • Educational materials on multi and inter disciplinary collaboration with social workers and non-legal professionals.

We recognize working with vulnerable populations as a witness to intense suffering can be incredibly difficult. Self care practices provide caring professionals the space to reset and step outside of carrying other people’s hurt and pain.

Self care is an intentional action you take to care for your mental, physical, and spiritual wellbeing. It involves having difficult conversations about when you step in or step out of the work, setting healthy boundaries and being compassionate with yourself, not just with your clients.

Visit our Self-Care & Nonprofit Wellness page to learn more about:

  • Our self care grants to small grassroots organizations in our network
  • The importance of supporting self care in nonprofit work, especially direct services work
  • Eligibility requirements and sign up for upcoming wellness events

Funder: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

637 people providing frontline services received cultural safety training in 2020

$53,000 dedicated to creating wellness programs for grassroots immigrant-serving nonprofits in Houston

Our Cultural Safety Trainings incorporate a curriculum that teaches culturally safe practices that promote creating a secure space for persons of diverse backgrounds, in pursuit of an environment informed by anti-racist teachings, and a commitment to ending acts and omissions that promote discrimination. Many people from non-mainstream immigrant cultures or with limited English proficiency face barriers similar to non-immigrant low-income communities. The awareness, skills, and strategies developed through the training are applicable to personnel working with communities that have multiple socio-economic vulnerabilities.

Learn more about our Cultural Safety Trainings and request a training for your agency or organization.

Entities that received HILSC Cultural Safety Training in 2020: Houston Food Bank, Big Brothers Big Sisters, National Association of Social Workers (NASW), Network of Behavioral Health Providers, The Young Center, Texas Familia Council, and HISD school counselors

Funder: Center for Disaster Philanthropy

The purpose of the Immigrant Accessibility Index (IAI) is to help organizations assess the extent to which their services are accessible to all immigrants, regardless of immigration status. This includes assessing policies and practices to evaluate whether they are trauma-informed, culturally welcoming, physically and linguistically accessible, and equity-building.

Learn more about the Immigrant Accessibility Index and:

  • Learn more about the purpose and process of the IAI
  • Take a short assessment to better understand the benefit of improving immigrant accessibility
  • Schedule a personal consultation for your agency or organization to begin the IAI process

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Disaster Resource Guide

The Disaster Resource Guide is a list of critical resources available in times of disaster, including during hurricanes and the pandemic. These resources are often short-term and designed to provide immediate support to communities, including immigrants, as they prepare for, respond to and recover from disasters that exacerbate their vulnerabilities.

The Guide includes information in the following categories:

  • Harris County / City of Houston Disaster Preparation and Response Information
  • Local Financial, Food, Healthcare, Mental Health and Housing Resources
  • COVID-19 Testing and Vaccination Information
  • Disaster-Responsive Internet, Education and Employment Support
  • Multi-Lingual Know Your Rights Materials and Immigration Legal Updates

To learn more visit our Disaster Resource Guide


AccessHOU is a database of resources for agencies working with immigrants in Greater Houston. Anyone can use it to find social services, from medical care to rental assistance to after school programs. The site is open-sourced, so agency representatives and individuals that received services from organizations may make additions, or changes to existing agency or program data.

This database was created by and for agencies that frequently collaborate to meet the diverse needs of immigrant clients. It supplements service providers referral lists by creating a powerful search engine to support questions on services and eligibility all without having to pick up the phone. Using this tool strengthens cross-functional community service knowledge and reduces errant call volume to small grassroots organizations providing niche services.

Funders: Center for Disaster Philanthropy | Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund

Partners: Las Americas Newcomer School, HISD | Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

To learn more visit the AccessHOU database.

The AccessHOU homepage, which allows users to search agency and program data in a variety of categories, is displayed in the image below.

AccessHOU generates on average 550 page views per month

The top searches on AccessHOU in 2020 included “coronavirus,” “immigration legal services,” and “cash assistance.”

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COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 had a devastating impact on our community’s health and financial stability. The pandemic disproportionately impacted already marginalized populations, increasing systemic disparities in access to critical resources such as financial assistance, food, housing, and healthcare.

Houston is home to one of the largest immigrant populations in the country with 1 in 4 people foreign-born, more than 500,000 undocumented residents and 32% of children with at least one non-citizen parent. The impact of COVID-19 on the immigrant community further demonstrated that existing systems of power are ill-designed to address the needs of immigrants irrespective of their status. This is particularly apparent where their marginalization intersects with the historic disenfranchisement of communities on the basis of race, gender, class, mobility, language access, etc.

Early in the pandemic, HILSC coordinated the #AllInThisTogether campaign to highlight the exclusion of vulnerable communities, especially mixed status families and undocumented persons from the limited financial support provided by federal and local governments in the form of stimulus checks, rent moratoriums, and unemployment financial assistance.

We also collaborated on early advocacy efforts to encourage COVID-19 recovery committees, especially the recovery leadership in Harris County and City of Houston, to implement local policies that addressed the needs of all community members, irrespective of immigration status.

Read HILSC’s 2020 COVID-19 Recovery Recommendations (PDF)

HILSC responded as we do in all disasters, with: 

  • Disseminating rapidly changing information to our partners about resources. 
  • Targeting resources to immigrant-serving organizations. 
  • And advocating to government officials and funders to ensure immigrants have access to disaster relief and recovery. 

HILSC evolved our post-Harvey Disaster FAQs into a crowdsourced Immigrant Disaster Resource Guide, raised money to distribute to grassroots organizations for direct cash assistance to immigrants, and worked with government and funders to reduce immigrant barriers in public relief funds and access to testing and vaccines.

Information Dissemination

The Immigrant Disaster Resource Guide is an open-sourced, online document designed for immigrant advocates to find and share information and resources. Throughout COVID-19, HILSC kept it up to date, with information on COVID overall, and where to find basic needs, testing, and eventually vaccines. We update it with immigrant-specific information on eligibility and processes, to make these resources more accessible.

In May 2020, HILSC launched a series of  webinars with our partners, diving deeply into issues that were exacerbated for immigrants by COVID, including rights and resources in housing, employment, and food security. 

 Introduction with Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative

Housing Rights with Lone Star Legal Aid

Employment Rights with Fe y Justicia Workers Center and Equal Justice Center

Food Access with Houston Food Bank

Targeted Resources

HILSC also received a $500,000 grant from the Harris County COVID-19 Relief Fund, which we regranted to our grassroots partner organizations that worked closely with immigrant communities. These organizations reacpeople that are not connected to many of the larger agencies that traditionally distribute moneyA total of 1,200 people received direct cash assistance that they could use to meet housing, utilities, transportation, medical care, prescriptions, or food needs.  


HILSC and our partners worked with Greater Houston Community Foundation (GHCF) and Connective to create a regrant process informed by the increasing urgency of community needs and decreasing capacity of organizations trying to help their communities in the pandemic.

As a result of our #AllInThisTogether campaign, GHCF reached out to HILSC to potentially expand their grantmaking to organizations working with communities made especially vulnerable by COVID-19. These conversations informed a more equitable and less burdensome process which included:

EXPANDING the network of small grassroots organizations that have direct relationships with GHCF

ENGAGING grassroots organizations in direct conversation with GHCF

COMMUNICATING more regularly

REPORTING requirements with more flexibility

Many organizations, especially those that are led by directly impacted communities, do not have sustained relationships with large funders. As GHCF sought to widen the network of organizations directly or indirectly receiving pandemic grants, HILSC and our partners expanded the groups in the conversation to include, for example, OLTT, an organization run by monolingual Spanish-speaking advocates. As a result, grant-related documents were translated into Spanish and it was the translation process that partly informed the funder on the complexity of their grant process.

The expansion of the network of organizations also informed next steps, which included engaging grassroots organizations in direct conversation with the funder on the discouraging complexity of reporting requirements. The funder, in turn, committed to communicating regularly so stakeholders could remain informed and engaged moving forward. Thus, relationships forged as a result of the pandemic would not disappear with time. These conversations led the funder to redesign grant requirements during the pandemic, to reduce the overall administrative burden and allow for extensions as needed.

Some of our partners were invited to apply directly, while others received funds for their clients through HILSC. We built capacity with many sub-grantees by supporting them through the application and reporting processes. As a result of this collaboration, these new ways of grantmaking have become standards for subsequent relief funds.

Grassroots Allies and Regrant Recipients

Lessons Learned

Relationship-building between grassroots organizations and funders ensured relief funds were distributed to a more diverse population than otherwise distributed through the public intake process. Primarily English speakers, for example, were overrepresented in the public intake process, while primarily Spanish speakers were grossly underrepresented. Funds distributed through agencies also reached more people who speak Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and Urdu, reaching the top five languages spoken at homes across Harris County.  

Though new in 2020, HILSC’s Immigrant Disaster Equity Workgroup (IDEW) comprises organizations serving directly impacted communities. It was well-positioned to respond when Harris County Public Health reached out with questions on vaccine distribution. IDEW was able to gain wins in the registration and distribution processes and push for the now-common community-based drives hosted by trusted agencies.  

HILSC and our partner agencies have learned a great deal about how to more effectively respond to disasters that can be applied during hurricanes, floods, freezes, and other events. We have developed stronger systems to distribute information to our partners, and they, to their clients. We have worked on the systems-level to ensure more inclusive access to resources. And we have connected immigrant agencies directly with funders and policy makers, bridging immigrant and disaster expertise for lasting impact 

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In 2020, the Collaborative paid out $1,051,724 in grants to 27 organizations

The Collaborative provides support to organizations through strategic grants that support holistic and collaborative services and advocacy.

HILSC makes grants through a participatory grantmaking process that puts service providers and directly impacted individuals in the front seat of grantmaking decisions. We also engage in robust funder education, working to grow the number of philanthropic institutions and individuals who support efforts to improve the lives of low-income immigrants in the region.

When the pandemic created severe financial hardships for immigrant families, HILSC successfully advocated with philanthropic partners to provide direct cash assistance to immigrant families who were left out of the federal assistance programs.

2020 Grant Recipients

Deportation Defense Houston

  • Grantees: BakerRipley, Justice For All Immigrants, South Texas College of Law Houston, YMCA International Services
  • Purpose: These grants support each organization’s participation in the Deportation Defense Houston project.

Access to Healthcare

  • Grantees: BakerRipley, BPSOS, ECHOS, El Centro Health Center, Living Hope Wheelchair Association, Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, Project for Immigrant and Refugee Child Health of Baylor Hospital, Tahirih Justice Center
  • PurposeTo develop a pilot project to improve immigrants’ access to healthcare to dispel the threat of “public charge” on immigration status.

COVID 19 Financial Assistance

  • Grantees: Al-Noor Society of Greater Houston, BakerRipley, BPSOS, Daya, ECHOS  Organization Latina Trans in Texas, Living Hope Wheelchair Association, Olive Branch Muslim Family Services, Transgender Law Center for BLMP, United We Dream
  • Purpose: to provide direct cash assistance to immigrants impacted by the pandemic but are ineligible for federal relief programs.

Immigrant Rights Hotline

  • Grantees: BakerRipley, United We Dream, Boat People SOS ddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd
  • Purpose: This collaborative grant supports bilingual hotline operators at the three organizations, as well as outreach and marketing of the hotline

Immigrant Disaster Equity

  • Grantees: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Fe y Justicia Worker Center, Ibn Sina Foundation, Partnership for the Advancement & Immersion of Refugees, Living Hope Wheelchair Association
  • Purpose: To provide disaster preparedness training and an individualized preparedness kit to training participants.

Immigration Advocacy

  • Grantees: Houston Leads
  • Purpose: To support Houston Leads in immigration advocacy, in particular for its efforts to advocate for public funding for deportation defense.

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