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.

Immigration rally in 2009 (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Immigration rally in 2009 (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

 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.

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.”

Comments