(The Root) — Lowell Hawthorne's immigrant tale isn't exactly a secret.
In 2003 Black Enterprise magazine named Hawthorne's Golden Krust Caribbean Bakery and Grill Inc. one of the top 100 black-owned companies in the United States. And when Hawthorne, Golden Krust's CEO, published a book late last year about his journey from new American to embodiment of the proverbial American dream, newspapers large and small published stories outlining his business struggles and triumphs.
He hasn't exactly lived in the shadows.
But the same can't be said for the other 3.5 million immigrants of African or Caribbean descent in the U.S. In many cases these immigrants are invisible, since they aren't likely to be the first people who come to mind when most Americans think about the conversation going on in Washington, D.C., about immigration reform.
"I probably wouldn't go so far as to say that the immigrant of African descent has been invisible, and certainly wouldn't say they've been excluded," says Rep. Yvette Clark, a Democrat representing New York's 9th District in Congress, an area that includes Brooklyn neighborhoods that are home to hundreds of thousands of African and Caribbean immigrants. "I would say that our interests have been somewhat marginalized."
Many immigrants from the West Indies and Africa have distinct needs that are often overlooked. At 12.5 percent, black immigrants had the highest unemployment rate of any foreign-born group in the United States in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They also earn lower wages, according to the Urban Institute. None of these issues are currently part of the discussion on Capitol Hill.
Meanwhile, many of the proposed new rules in the Senate reform bill passed in June will have a disproportionate effect on black immigrants: It could make it easier to deport them for petty crimes and narrow the pathways that allow most to come to the United States legally.
Indeed, young, undocumented and mostly Latino immigrants brought to the country as children without authorization have become the sort of public face and, some say, primary focus of immigration reform.
Part of the problem is that black immigrants make up a small share of the nation's immigrant population, just under 10 percent, says Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington, D.C.-based research organization. Meanwhile, of the 11.1 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, about 500,000 of them are black. So to some extent, the fact that the public face of immigration reform is Latino makes perfect sense, Passel says.
But beyond the numbers and the dynamics of public activism around immigration reform, there are real questions of policy and just what black immigrants need from any overhaul.
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.
Maintaining access to visas is not the only interest that black immigrants need to protect, says Abraham Paulos, executive director of Families for Freedom, a New York-based human rights organization that works with immigrants to delay or prevent deportations. The Senate bill also seeks to expand the list of offenses that lead to immigrants' automatic deportation.
This hits black immigrants especially hard. Between 2005 and 2010 in New York City alone, just over 80 percent of the individuals deported were removed after being convicted of a minor or major crime, according to public records obtained by Families for Freedom. Many also live in mostly black communities that are heavily policed, resulting in the same levels of disproportionate involvement in the criminal-justice system that black Americans experience, says Paulos.
And for immigrants, being accused of even minor criminal infractions, such as failure to appear in court or jumping a turnstile, can have dire consequences: automatic deportation, Clark says.
"The reality is that we are black in a racist society," said Paulos. "Of course that struggle is not nearly as universally compelling, as heartrending, as the story of a child brought to this country illegally who knows no other life. So getting caught between the immigration courts and the criminal-justice system is not really an issue that the national immigration community has been willing to rally around. It's sort of a gray area between immigrants."
There are also early signs of support for a similar deportation measure in the House, Clark says. But the Congressional Black Caucus plans to push long and hard for immigration judges to be given greater latitude to decide whether or not to deport in individual cases and prevent any new entries on the automatic-deportation list.
The caucus may have to prepare for an extended campaign.
House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican who represents Ohio's 8th District, said last week that the House will not work to modify the Senate proposal but, rather, will craft its own immigration-overhaul bill from scratch. The announcement prompted some commentators to pronounce immigration reform dead.
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due out next year.