Are Black Immigrants Lost in the Debate?

Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York tells The Root about challenges faced by those who seek a home in the U.S.

(The Root) — Immigration reform has emerged as the most-talked-about domestic-policy issue of 2013. In his first major interview after winning re-election, President Obama dubbed it one of his major second-term priorities. But perhaps more notably, high-profile conservative Republicans have latched onto it as well. Fox News firebrand Sean Hannity announced a political about-face on the issue immediately after the 2012 election, declaring his newfound support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Hannity’s voice has been echoed by Republican lawmakers such as Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who are working with Democrats to find a bipartisan solution to the current immigration crisis. But the most prominent Republican voice on the issue is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The Cuban American recently appeared on a Time magazine cover with the headline “The Republican Savior: How Marco Rubio Became the Voice of the GOP.”

Rubio has emerged as the voice of the GOP in part because he is a telegenic Latino, and it is believed that he can help the party appeal to America’s fastest-growing demographic — Latinos — in a way that other Republican officials may not be able to, particularly on issues like immigration. But Rubio’s rapid rise as the legislative voice of this issue raises an important question: Are non-Latinos being forgotten in the immigration debate, particularly those of African descent? 

Of the nearly 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. in 2011, 80 percent came from Latin America, including Mexico. But Hispanic immigration is decreasing, and according to CBS News, “For the first time since 1910, Hispanic immigration last year was topped by immigrants from Asia.” In an interview with The Root, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) explained that while some of the challenges facing immigrants are universal, others depend on the country of origin.

Beyond Border Crossings …

Clarke said of her district, which encompasses the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, N.Y., “Just about every single island of the Caribbean [is] represented in my district, combining to make a Caribbean community or an immigrant group that’s not typically the face of immigration.” Clarke explained that part of why non-Latino immigrants are rarely discussed by the media or by politicians is in part because their arrival in this country is often not as controversial as that of their Latino counterparts.

“When you talk about immigration, people often think of individuals who enter by crossing the Southern border [without papers], but many other immigrant populations enter the United States on some form of documentation, typically a visa,” she said. She went on to explain that some of them, though, overstay their visas or other documentation, “and end up in the country undetected and out of status.”

Clarke’s point highlighted a fundamental divide regarding the focus of the immigration debate today. While many conservatives, including conservative Democrats, want immigration reform to focus on issues like Southern-border security and learning English, as Clarke explained, for many non-Latinos these are not as relevant.

As she noted, many immigrants from the Caribbean already speak English. Instead, their primary problems have to do with the inefficiency of the visa system, something that is highlighted in more in-depth policy discussions of immigration reform but is rarely touched upon in news sound bites, television ads or press conferences.