Black Immigrants Join the Debate

Millions of African- and Caribbean-born people are missing from the immigration-reform conversation. A few of them tell The Root that they will not be shut out.

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Sheryl Winarick, an immigration attorney in Washington, D.C., suggests that the largest hurdles for blacks in the immigration system, particularly those fleeing poverty or civil strife, usually arise from the economic situation in their countries. She explained that most visas require proof that an individual plans to return home after a temporary visit to the U.S.

"Anyone that's coming from a developing country has a harder time demonstrating their intent to just visit instead of staying permanently," she told The Root. "If you don't own a home or have a steady flow of income to go back to, then the government assumes you're more likely to want to stay here permanently and find work."

On the other hand, Phil Hutchings, an organizer with Oakland, Calif.'s Black Alliance for Just Immigration, which lobbies for immigrants' rights, believes that race is always in play. "It factors into whether you get through speedily or whether there's a lot of circumspection," he says.

"People who go against the norm of what Americans are 'supposed to look like' -- and that generally includes black people -- have more difficulty," he continues. "Also, a fair number of African immigrants are Muslim, putting them in a suspect category that makes it harder for them to come here."

An African Dreamer

For her part, Olubunmi says her challenges stemmed from a rigid policy that makes it impossible for undocumented immigrants to rectify their situation once they fall out of legal status. When she was 14, her mother brought her to Maryland from Nigeria to escape political instabilities. The plan was for her aunt, a U.S. citizen, to adopt her.

"The plan was never to be undocumented," she says, but the process hit a snag when her papers were filed late. It's a common mishap. "When you file your paperwork, officials could say that you missed a deadline by a week or two, but they don't actually respond to you for two or three years because of the backlog. People who are committed to doing the right thing get caught up, unbeknownst to them, in these basic flaws in the system. It's pretty easy to fall through the cracks."

Olubunmi graduated from high school at the top of her class and then from college, earning a chemical engineering degree. She anticipated filing her papers with a company that would hire her as an engineer, only to learn that she couldn't legally get a job. "The law says that if you're undocumented, you cannot adjust your status while living in the U.S.," she says. "I'd have to go to Nigeria to sort out the conflict; then, once I got there, it would trigger a three-to-10-year bar from returning to this country. But this is my home."

Since 2008, Olubunmi has volunteered with various advocacy organizations, working behind the scenes for comprehensive immigration reform and the DREAM Act in particular. "We're not asking for a free pass," she says, explaining that many would-be beneficiaries were brought over as babies or toddlers.

"People always say, 'Get in line.' Well, the DREAM Act creates a line," she says. "These students are saying that they will do whatever they have to, if it's going to college or serving in the military. They are just asking for an opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the country they love."