To the detriment of the immigration reform debate, the African/Caribbean voice is silent.
This is not to take away from the summer of 2012 when my Kenyan-born self came out as undocumented during a Maryland DREAM act rally in front of Baltimore’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office and marched for the same cause later that August from Silver Spring to Wheaton, Maryland. In both these instances, I was with a community that I do not hesitate to call my family. However, the lack of Black undocumented youth disconcerted me. Not to say they did not exist – they did. I just wanted to know where they are. As I grew in the movement, things seemed to have changed. I came to admire activists Yannick Diouf, Kemi Bello[ii], and Marybeth Onyeukwu, who give the immigration reform movement the Black voice it so desperately needs.[iii] I am firmly of the belief that there are many more undocumented African and Caribbean youth in the larger immigration movement. As the facts would have it, the mission of finding them is going to be a tough one.
Of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants, about 500,000 are Black.[iv] Incorporating legal immigration into the equation, Black immigrants comprise just 10% of immigrants in America. As Janell Ross of The Root states, “it makes perfect sense for the face of immigration reform to be a Latino one.”[iv]
I have always had the idea that discussions on immigration among Black immigrant communities like my own are taboo. Black undocumented Americans (especially males) have a ‘double-stigma’. Not only do we have to deal with being Black in America, but also deal with living in a country that does not recognize and accept us. As Onyeukwu so eloquently states,
For too long, the Black struggle has been co-opted to legitimize the immigrant rights movement with little to no reciprocity. Movement leaders have consistently ignored and erased the plight of black migrants. Movement leaders have time and time again failed to offer any kind of support when black communities are under siege. Movement leaders continue to embrace anti-Black rhetoric in order to position themselves as worthy of American citizenship. What is citizenship in a country that dehumanizes its Black citizens? What is “the right to be with our families” in light of the murders of Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, John Crawford, Kimani Gray and many others? Did they not have a right to be with their families?[v]
The struggles of being Black in America seem inescapable, but it is markedly easier – although still difficult – to hide from being undocumented in America. Not that one struggle is tougher than the other, but barely anyone assumes that it is possible for someone from a country not bordering the U.S. to even be undocumented. Still, Black undocumented immigrants have to deal with the cultural and material effects of both race and status. We are already conflated with a bastardized notion of the African American (this is especially true for males). Being undocumented may mean conflation with a bastardized notion of the immigrant. From personal experience, having to fight through both is a gargantuan task, but it can only be conquered when the Black immigrant community has such a conversation. However, avoiding this discussion has dire consequences. There are pressing policy issues that disproportionately affect the African community, which has been markedly silent relative to the immigration debate.
I worry that the Black voice is markedly silent as the House GOP is removing the Diversity Visa program.[vi] This is an issue that disproportionately affects Black immigrants, as they receive about half 45,000 to 55,000 Diversity Visas given away via the Diversity Visa (DV) lottery. Diversity Visas allow many African and Caribbean families to come to America, build families, and work so that they can send money home to help with services that are desperately needed. As Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, co-chair of the immigration task force for the Congressional Black Caucus[vii], states, “We want to draw fold from all over the world who are compelled to pursue the American Dream.”[viii]
By removing the DV program and allocating those visas to foreign-born STEM graduates from American schools, the House GOP is pitting constituencies against each other, with little response from the Black community and even less inclination from the immigration rights movement to bring the black community into the fold. It is possible to have a continuing discussion on immigration whereby both the Silicon Valley and Black immigrant enclaves in major American cities get what each wants, but with the silencing of the African/Caribbean communities, the DV program will be replaced without so much as an whisper in objection.
Rep. Jeffries cites a CRS study, which states that immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa through the DV program are more likely to find themselves in professional and managerial positions than through any other form of legal immigration. This statistic speaks to the rigor of the DV program. Those who receive these visas are not ‘criminals’ or the like. They are hard-working people with the desire of making America better. These immigrants are also smart; the study states that Sub-Saharan immigrants have the highest level of educational attainment at the point of immigration to and residence in the United States of any immigrant group.
The question now becomes, if data shows that the DV program brings in the best, most resolute Black minds to the United States, why are those minds silent when it comes to their community? An answer to this question is complex, but If I may hazard a starting point, it is that there is because a resistance to assimilation among the Black immigrant community. Whether that resistance is because of not knowing when or how, it is nevertheless hampering the larger immigration debate.[ix] Activists like Amaha Kassa are making this process easier for the Black community, thus giving this community a voice that is integral to a developing narrative on immigration reform.
In 2014, the 11 million undocumented Americans need an immigration reform bill that represents each and every one of us. If a group – however small- is left out, then that bill is not up to our values.[i] Further, when Jose Antonio Vargas’s film Documented has no statistics on the amount of African undocumented immigrants in the United States, when immigrant rights movements tokenize the scant amount of black immigrant activists, this is a reminder that the immigrant rights movement has a serious anti-blackness problem. The immigrant rights movement must work toward recognizing the personhood of all who are in it.