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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Immigration rally in 2009 (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On March 11, at a press conference on Capitol Hill, Tolu Olubunmi came out publicly as an undocumented immigrant for the first time.

"It's been nerve-racking because it puts me at a risk," the 30-year-old told The Root about her speech supporting Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin's (D-Ill.) reintroduction of the DREAM Act. The bill, which passed in the House last year but failed to clear the Senate, would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented youths like her, brought to the United States as children. "But I think you have to focus on the individuals to get away from the politics of an issue that's so divisive. Once you know that there are real people attached to the statistics, then you have to start working on real solutions."

Olubunmi, who was born in Nigeria, is also one of 3 million black immigrants in this country. Despite moving from Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America at a remarkable rate -- and despite an estimated 400,000 having undocumented status -- they are barely footnotes in an immigration-reform conversation that is usually framed as a Mexican-border issue. But in light of newer, smaller-but-growing communities, as well as recently granted protected status for Haitians in particular, black immigrants are becoming stronger voices, advocating for reform from their diverse perspectives.

Black Sojourners

According to a Population Reference Bureau report (pdf), about two-thirds of black immigrants to the U.S. are from the Caribbean and Latin America -- mostly Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad -- with families that largely began settling in the United States from the 1960s through the '80s. More recently there's been a wave of African immigrants, with more arriving between 2000 and 2005 than in the previous decade. The top three countries from that continent are Nigeria, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Most black immigrants enter the United States legally, seeking education and job opportunities, either by joining immediate relatives who are U.S. citizens or by presenting student or tourist visas with an expiration date. Those who are undocumented often fall out of status by overstaying these visas.

As The Root noted in a previous article, Caribbean- and African-born blacks tend to be wealthier and more educated than other immigrants, a class difference that has kept many from joining Latinos in the immigration-reform movement. But in recent years, with more African and Caribbean people coming to the United States to flee political strife, civil violence and natural disasters, new groups are entering as refugees or asylum seekers. While only 3 percent of immigrants from Caribbean countries, mostly from Haiti, were admitted under the refugee category, nearly 30 percent of sub-Saharan Africans granted legal residence between 2000 and 2006 entered as refugees.

 As these flows of people have come from countries like Somalia, Congo, Liberia and Haiti -- without the same educational resources allowing them to flourish -- many have run into trouble navigating a slow-moving and restrictive immigration system.

Who Gets In?

Although immigration from Africa and the Caribbean has grown rapidly over the past decade, having contributed to at least one-fifth of America's black population growth between 2000 and 2005 alone, there are anecdotal arguments that the process is infused with racism and works less efficiently for black people.

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