Should Nonprofits Serve Undocumented Immigrants?
It is considered somewhat bad form to draw too much from someone else’s text. Once in a while, though, someone else says it so well that one’s best approach is, “Yeah, what he said,” and then add a little more. Woods Bowman’s response to an ethics question in the current issue of The Nonprofit Quarterly is one of those cases.
The heart of the question Woods – a professor at DePaul University – was asked in his regular ethics column was, “What are the ethical and moral obligations of nonprofits to serve people who have entered the US as undocumented immigrants?” I have written in this blog previously both about the challenges social service agencies face as they bump up against immigration policies, and about how one class of nonprofits – churches – might think about their obligation toward civil disobedience. In his answer to this immigration question, Woods pulls both together in a tight, well considered piece that doubles as a crash course in public ethics. Permit me to offer several excerpts.
...the reason we have nonprofit organizations is to serve the public interest, and they have an ethical obligation to follow their mission wherever it leads. If it leads to conflict with civil law, then an organization needs to take time out for a values check. Precisely what is its mission? How does the law compromise its mission? Is it a just law? If, like Jim Crow laws, a law is unjust, an organization has an ethical obligation to do something about it.
…There are many possible courses of action beginning with advocacy and extending to civil disobedience.
…Civil disobedience is a last resort. Even if a law is unjust, proceed with caution, because respect for the law is (or should be) enshrined in all codes of ethics. One should consider: Are there alternatives? Have they been tried? Why not try them first?
…As in the case of all ethical choices, one must openly acknowledge one’s actions, vocally defend them, and then accept the consequences—knowing that they are likely to be unpleasant.
It strikes me that Woods focuses on the balance all nonprofits must strike between fidelity to mission, which is both an ethical and a fiduciary obligation, and fidelity to the rule of law, which is an obligation of the nonprofit-as-citizen. As we increasingly recognize nonprofits as essential participants in how a democratic society functions (something I’ve also discussed here in a previous entry), these nonprofits-as-citizens will face questions about laws, policies, their impact and how they should be followed that individual citizens have faced all along. Laws and policies that create pressures on individuals, or that threaten a potential injustice, often will have the same impact on the nonprofits that serve them.
Discussions of public ethics, and the role of nonprofits as public actors, become increasingly important under those circumstances. I think Wood’s answer to this particular anonymous question should be on the Cliff Notes nonprofit leaders keep on hand for reference.