Will Reform Help Black Immigrants?

African and Caribbean immigrants are often forgotten in the debate in Washington.

A woman protests at an immigration-reform demonstration in California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
A woman protests at an immigration-reform demonstration in California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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In June the Senate — a body with just one black member, a Republican who has refused to join the Congressional Black Caucus — approved a painstakingly negotiated overhaul that some say includes plenty of reason for black immigrants to worry.

“The Senate bill, not only is it blind to the other faces of immigration, but [it] actually penalizes African immigrants,” economist Julianne Malveaux, the former president of Bennett College, told MSNBC this month. Malveaux could not be reached for comment this week but pointed out during an interview with the cable news network that after several rounds of negotiation, the Senate bill approved in June eliminated the 40,000 to 55,000 visas available annually under existing immigration law, known as the diversity visa program.

The program, which is designed to keep the country’s population varied, creates a sort of lottery for immigrant applicants from countries that have sent relatively small numbers of immigrants to the United States. Last year about 15,000 of these visas went to Africans, giving them legal permission to enter the United States, says Michael Fix, a senior vice president at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that supports comprehensive reform.

The Senate bill — largely at the insistence of Republicans who object philosophically to diversity as a goal of immigration — instead offers about 10,500 visas each year to immigrants from the Caribbean region and African continent who can meet certain educational or job-skills requirements, Fix says. Some will also be allowed to bring their families.

Some experts, such as Malveaux, see the change as a monumental loss, one that could reshape the country’s population in the near future, because immigrants from every region, on average, have more children than native-born Americans. It could also rob black communities of doctors and other needed immigrant professionals and business owners who may create jobs or spur economic activity, she says. The compromise will, without question, mean that about 5,000 fewer Africans than last year will be given the legal permission and visas they need to enter the United States.

The Senate bill includes a provision that dedicates some of the funds raised from work visas and other immigration fees to education and training programs for students of color already living in or born inside the United States, Rep. Clark said.

Clark is part of a Congressional Black Caucus contingent working to shape the contents of any immigration package. The caucus has some influence in the House, where all of its members hold seats. But it had no direct input regarding the Senate bill, Clark says.